When Jacques Cartier sailed up the St Lawrence River on his second voyage to the New World in 1535, he had with him two sons of the Iroquoian chief Donnacona. Cartier had taken the young men to France after his first voyage to be trained as interpreters. As the Iroquoians noticed familiar landmarks they called to Cartier that here was the "chemin de kanata" – the route to the village. Against the background noise of sails snapping and rigging creaking Cartier heard "chemin de Canada."
Cartier documented the name Canada in his journal, describing the "Kingdom of Canada" and noting that the entrance to the river "is the way to and the beginning of...the route to Canada." He named Donnacona's territory "the Province of Canada." 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. 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 in 1534. 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."
The inhabitants of this community of Canada are known for their sense of humour and there is another fanciful tale to tell. 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 Canada, the land that is a community.
Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is a subject editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia. (Artwork by Laura Neilson Bonikowsky.)