Indigenous toponymy

© Gary Yee

A brief overview of a rich and complex subject

Naming a territory or a country means appropriating it. During our recent meeting with former Algonquin grand chief Dominique Rankin, we candidly asked him if giving places back their Indigenous names would not be a step towards reconciliation. In response, a huge smile lit his face.

To make things simple, let’s say that toponymy is the science of place names. In Québec, the toponymy derives from three sources: French, English, and Indigenous languages, including Abenaki, Algonquian, Atikamekw, Cree, Huron, Inuit, Maliseet, Mi’kmaw, Mohawk, Montagnais and Naskapi, which provided more than 10,000 toponyms – 9.6 per cent of the nomenclature established by the Commission de toponymie du Québec in 1993.

The names of Indigenous places reflect knowledge of the area or of other events having to do with animals, humans or ancestors. So toponymy is a treasure and a patrimonial heritage that permits interpretation of the relationships that humans have with a territory.

Nomadism and toponymy

The nomads who lived in oral tradition used descriptive terms to exchange information about places and itineraries. For example, Abitibi means “the places where the waters divide”, Kiamika is “the steep rock” and Quebec City is located “where the watercourse narrows”.

Indigenous peoples used thousands of names to designate the places where they went. A number of these names are still used by Indigenous people themselves, but have never been listed. Transmitted orally, they were recorded by cartographers ignorant of the language of origin, and therefore reproduced and spelled in an approximate or faulty manner.

The toponymy commission made a commitment to make known and to highlight the Indigenous toponymic heritage. To date, more than 1,800 traditional Indigenous and Inuit names of places, which are not official and have never been disseminated online, have been contributed into the Banque de “noms de lieux du Québec” (bank of place names of Québec).

Indigenous toponyms

Some words became camouflaged in our language, but not as they appeared originally. For example, there’s Canada, an Iroquois word that means village; Oka which is pickerel; and Mascouche: the little bear. Nominingue, a red or vermilion paint, is an Iroquois allusion to a kind of red chalk found in the region and used to paint the body.

Several words continue to enchant us due to their sound: Kiamika, steep rock; Ouareau, distant; Windigo, supernatural spirit. And further north there are majestic lands called Baskatong, Temiscaming and Cabonga.

Some terms didn’t really survive, such as Manitonga Soutana, the mountain of the spirits, which designates the highest summit in the region, an important place of passage where ceremonies were held. According to legend, the Algonquians (Anishinabe) believed that the Spirit made the mountain tremble when people disturbed nature. In reality, it might be water coursing down the slopes of the mountain which caused this impression of trembling for the people lying on the ground. The name Mont Tremblant reflects this legend.

Another name that has disappeared is the former name of the municipality of Labelle, which was called, for a period, Chute aux Iroquois (Iroquois Falls), a reminder of some Iroquois who drowned in the Rouge River rapids.

More recently, an ecological reserve close to Sainte- Agathe-des-Monts has been named Jackrabbit. This name refers to Norwegian engineer Herman Smith Johannsen (1875 – 1987), a pioneer of cross-country skiing in the Laurentians, who in the ‘30s opened up the Maple Leaf trail linking Mont Tremblant and Shawbridge. He was so skilled at skiing among the forest trees that the Cree nicknamed him Wapoo, which means Hare or Jackrabbit in English.

The languages of the First Peoples left a remarkable heritage. But is the current situation acceptable? Should more be done to highlight Indigenous culture and presence? Would this be one means of reconciliation?


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Daniel Gauvreau


Daniel Gauvreau44 Posts

Récréologue et journaliste de formation, tour à tour organisateur, formateur, consultant, chroniqueur et traducteur dans le milieu du plein air, Daniel Gauvreau est passionné d’activité physique en extérieur. De retour d’un périple au Québec et en France, il a choisi les Hautes-Laurentides pour satisfaire son amour de la nature. Semi-retraité, moniteur de ski de fond à SFMT, son expérience profite désormais aux lecteurs de Tremblant Express. Recreation professional and journalist by education, organizer, trainer, consultant, columnist and translator about the outdoors by experience, Daniel Gavreau is passionate about physical activity outside. Following a trip through Québec and France, he chose the Hautes-Laurentides as the place to satisfy his love of nature. Semi-retired and teaching cross-country skiing with SFMT, he now offers his experience to Tremblant Express readers.


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