Naming a country is no small task. The name should evoke feelings of pride and strength and reflect the character of the land and its people. The explorer Jacques Cartier generally gets the credit for naming Canada; he documented the name in his journal, describing the “Kingdom of Canada” and noting that the entrance to the St. Lawrence River “is the way to and the beginning of…the route to Canada.” However, the story of the country’s naming is not his alone.
Cartier set sail on his first voyage to the North American continent on Monday, April 20, 1534; his two ships arrived off Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, on May 10, where they were delayed by snow and ice. On the 21st they sailed northward and westward until they reached the Straits of Belle-Isle, and explored the coast of Labrador as far as Blanc Sablon and the west coast of Newfoundland. These regions were pronounced by Cartier as unfit for settlement, especially Labrador, of which he remarked, “it might, as well as not, be taken for the country assigned by God to Cain.” The little flotilla continued its voyage along the coastline searching for a passage that would take them further west. They met many indigenous people and established communication and trade before taking their leave on July 25. Among their company were two sons of the Iroquois chief Donnacona, whom Cartier took to France to be trained as interpreters.
In 1535, when Jacques Cartier sailed up the St Lawrence River on his second voyage to the New World, he had with him the two young Iroquois. As they noticed familiar landmarks they called to Cartier that here was the “chemin de kanata” – the route to the village, or community. Against the background noise of sails snapping and rigging creaking Cartier heard “chemin de Canada.” He named Donnacona’s territory “the Province of Canada” and the name Canada subsequently appeared on the 1547 Harleian world map, denoting land north of the gulf and river of St. Lawrence.
Cartier’s may not have been the first use of the name Canada. Fishermen and whalers from Spain, Portugal, France and Britain had visited the New World before him. In fact, the Spanish experience in Mexico and Peru prompted exploration for gold and riches in other places and motivated King François I of France to send Cartier on his first voyage to Canada. The Spaniards, finding no riches around the Baie des Chaleurs, reported “aca nada” or “cà nada” meaning “nothing here” and named it “Capa da Nada,” “Cape Nothing.” In 1809 in London Hugh Gray posited that, when the French came to the new land the native people, supposing them Spanish and wanting them to leave, repeated “aca nada.” The French, not understanding, thought this might be the name of the country and called it Canada.
As the area was settled, the population strove to identify its new community. The inhabitants of New France preferred Canada. The British of the 13 colonies were more inclined to use Quebec, the name Samuel de Champlain gave to the St Lawrence River settlement he founded in 1608. After the British conquest, the English called the colony the Province of Quebec. Many of the French resisted that name. Eventually the British gave in and officially adopted the name Canada in the Canada Act of 1791 and created Upper and Lower Canada. The Act of Union in 1841 reunited them as the “British Province of Canada.” At that point the French began to embrace the name Quebec.
The debate over a name continued as the colonies considered uniting and the Fathers of Confederation discussed alternative designations. They contemplated honouring Queen Victoria’s late husband with Albertsland or the queen herself with Victorialand. Other suggestions included Albionara, Borealia, Britannia, Cabotia, Mesoplagia, Norland, Superior, Transatlantia and Tupona, an acronym of The United Provinces of North America. Another unwieldy acronym was Efisga, derived from England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Aborigines. Finally, in 1867 the colonies became a community under the name Dominion of Canada, more than 300 years after Donnacona’s sons led Cartier to their “kanata.”
There is one final story—a reflection of our famous sense of humour, which seems to have developed as a national characteristic a long time ago. In 1811 the Kingston Gazette suggested that the name Canada came from inhabitants of New France who, permitted only one can of spruce beer per day, “every moment articulated ‘can a day.’” As many of us undoubtedly plan to hoist a few cold ones to celebrate Canada Day, perhaps this last story is as fitting as any other. Whatever the origins of our country’s name, we can find pleasure in the many colourful stories that comprise our history and take pride in this community we call Canada.