Redefining Directions: Is Northwest Territories the right name for a territory?
On a recent
trip to Yellowknife, Québec Senator, Pierre DeBané, asked a very interesting
question. “Why doesn’t the
Northwest Territories have its own distinct name – like Yukon or Nunavut?
After all, it is only northwest from the point of view of Ottawa.”
course, Northerners have discussed the idea of a name change many times before
– but could never agree on what that change should be.
Denendeh was always a serious possibility – the Slavey word meaning
“land of the people,” mirroring the name Nunavut which means the same thing
in Inuktitut. A more frivolous
proposal suggested we call the territory “Bob.”
Others have said the name Northwest Territories has a long history in
Canada. We should leave it well
enough alone and concentrate on more serious matters.
a name is a serious thing. What you
call a thing or a place goes a long way to defining what it is.
A name can unify or it can divide. A
name can be a symbol and it can be a statement of intent for the future.
at the history of names in Canada, one discovers an interesting pattern.
Of the twelve other provinces and territories, six derive their names
from Aboriginal words. Canada
itself came from the word, kanata,
meaning village, which, from its repetition, French explorer Jacques Cartier
took to be the name of the entire country. The
other six were named to reflect European settlement or in honour of members of
the British royal family.
has one of the oldest place names in Canada.
It was called the “new founde isle” by John Cabot, who arrived there
in 1497, and began appearing in official English records as “New founde launde”
as early as 1501. The French
version, “Terre Neuve” was first recorded in 1510 and the name became
generally accepted shortly thereafter.
name Quebec was first applied to the area around the present-day city and
appeared in various spellings from 1601 on.
The name derives from an Algonquin word for “narrow passage” or
“strait,” referring to the narrowing of the St. Lawrence River at Cape
1621, Sir William Alexander was granted a tract of land by the British Crown
lying between New England and Newfoundland and called Nova Scotia, Latin for New
Scotland. In 1713, the boundaries
were fixed by the Treaty of Utrecht and included not only present day Nova
Scotia but also New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
P.E.I. was separated from Nova Scotia in 1769 as St. John’s Island and
received its present name in 1798 to honour Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.
New Brunswick became a separate province in 1784 and was named as a
compliment to King George III, who was descended from the House of Brunswick.
name Ontario was first applied to the lake in 1641 and only later came to
signify the land next to it. It may have derived from the local aboriginal word onitariio
meaning “beautiful lake” or possibly kanadario meaning “sparkling waters.”
origin of the name Manitoba is not entirely certain but was probably first
applied to Lake Manitoba. It may have derived from the Assiniboine words mini
tobow meaning Lake of the Prairie or Lac des Prairies as it was called by
French explorer La Verendrye. More
likely it comes from the Cree maniotowpow
meaning “the strait of the spirit,” arising from the belief that a minito
or spirit inhabited Manitoba Island in the lake.
also has watery origins, with the name being derived for the Cree term, Kisisskatchewani Sipi, or “swift-flowing
river,” their name for what came to be called the Saskatchewan River.
Explorer Anthony Henday rendered this as Keiskatchewan, which evolved
over the years into its current version. Saskatchewan
was officially adopted in 1882 when a separate district was created within the
breaks the trend of aboriginal names and first appeared in 1882 with the
creation of the district of Alberta within the Northwest Territories.
It was named in honour of Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of
Queen Victoria and wife of the Marquess of Lorne who was Governor General of
Canada at the time.
Columbia (formerly known as British Caledonia) also owes its name to Queen
Victoria who officially proclaimed it as the colony’s name in 1858.
Columbia came from the name of the river, which in turn had been named by
American Captain Robert Gray for his ship Columbia.
comes from yu-kun-ah, meaning “great river” in
the local aboriginal language. It
was first applied to the area in 1846 by John Bell, an employee of the
Hudson’s Bay Company.
the term northwest territories was loosely applied to the vast lands north and
west of central Canada and included all of what is now Manitoba, Saskatchewan,
Alberta, Yukon, Nunavut, the current NWT as well as the northern parts of
Ontario and Quebec. The area was
also called Rupert’s Land and was formally transferred to Canada from Great
Britain a few years after Confederation. In
1870, two new jurisdictions were created – the Province of Manitoba, which
then consisted of a small square around the original Red River settlements, and
the Northwest Territories which consisted of all the rest.
This area was eventually divided into a number of separate districts
including Saskatchewan, Alberta, MacKenzie, Franklin and Keewatin and the
capital was established in Regina.
1898, a separate Yukon Territory was established in response to the tremendous
influx of people during the gold rush. Yukon
almost achieved provincial status shortly thereafter but then the mining boom
collapsed and those plans were put on hold indefinitely.
1905, separate provinces were created in Saskatchewan and Alberta and over the
next number of years provincial boundaries in these new provinces as well as
Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba were expanded.
The territorial capital was moved back to Ottawa.
By 1920, the Northwest Territories were defined as “that part of
Northern Canada between the Yukon Territory and Hudson Bay, including Baffin
Island, the islands in James Bay, Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and the Arctic
it remained until 1999, when the NWT was split and Nunavut was created.
the NWT was once the biggest part of Canada, it has over the years come to be
“the part leftover.” Although land claims and self-government agreements will
create further changes within the territory, it is unlikely that a further
division will occur.
you think about it, northwest is a drab word, which no longer describes reality.
Yukon is farther west and both Yukon and Nunavut are also part of the
the Northwest Territories is still a huge part of this country and it has a
bright future and an important role to play.
Perhaps it is time that the name for our territory reflects this
significant role. With the fifth
anniversary of the creation of Nunavut this year and the 100th birthday of
Alberta and Saskatchewan coming in 2005, now would be a good time to consider a
new name for the NWT.
new name for the NWT has to be one all residents of the territories can be proud
of. It must be inclusive,
reflecting the culture and aspirations of all the different Aboriginal peoples
whose land this is, as well as non-Aboriginal people who have made the North
their home. It should reflect our
history and be consistent with Canadian traditions for naming provinces.
To date, no name has been proposed that meets all these objectives.
Denendeh – although widely popular with many aboriginal people – does
not reflect the culture of Inuvialuit people and is not as widely supported by
has already been noted that half of the provinces and territories have names
derived from aboriginal words and in five of six cases that word had something
to do with water. The other six names reflect European exploration and
settlement. In the NWT, the
MacKenzie River is a vital feature that links the territory virtually from one
end to the other. MacKenzie was
also the name of the district, which once formed a large part of the current
territory. Obviously an aboriginal
word referring to the MacKenzie River might work well for the new name –
including both Aboriginal culture and European history.
However, the question remains, which language?
Slavey, the MacKenzie is called Deh Cho, but like Denendeh, this does not
reflect all the peoples of the NWT. Besides
the name has already been used to refer to a specific region and to a
constituency in the Legislative Assembly. Again
the traditions of naming in Canada might give a clue.
Although many provincial/territorial names are derived from Aboriginal
languages, generally the words have been modified by English or French
pronunciations and spelling. Thus onitariio
became Ontario and yu-kun-ah became Yukon.
Borrowing from other languages also occurred as in Nova Scotia and the
Columbia part of BC – both of which are derived from Latin.
Perhaps a similar process might apply here.
example, we could merge the Slavey word for water or river with the Inuvialuit
word for delta or ocean or some similar combination.
In making a final decision we should explore what combination might make
the most beautiful, melodious and memorable name.
Any decision to rename the NWT must of course be made in a manner that is open and acceptable to all territorial residents. I hope that by circulating this pamphlet I can stimulate a debate. I will be raising these ideas with the new territorial government in the coming few months and plan to hold public meetings in several parts of the NWT in the spring and summer. Eventually, I would introduce a bill to change the name of the territory in the Senate—perhaps as early as next fall. In the meantime I would encourage you to write to me ( and remember no postage is required) with any thoughts you have on the issue.
mail your suggestions to:
Honourable Nick Sibbeston
Tel: (613) 943-7790
Fax: (613) 943-7792
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