The name of Canada has been in use since the founding of the French colony of Canada in the 16th century. The name originates from a Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian word kanata (or canada) for "settlement", "village", or "land". It is pronounced // (listen) in English and [kanadɑ] (listen) in standard Quebec French. In Inuktitut, one of the official languages of the territory of Nunavut, the Iroquoian word (pronounced [kanata]) is used, with the Inuktitut syllabics ᑲᓇᑕ.
The first French colony of Canada, which formed one of several colonies within New France, was set up along the Saint Lawrence River and the northern shores of the Great Lakes. Later the area became two British colonies, called Upper Canada and Lower Canada until their union as the British Province of Canada in 1841. Upon Confederation in 1867, the name Canada was officially adopted for the new Dominion of Canada.
The name Canada is now generally accepted as originating from the St. Lawrence Iroquoian word kanata or canada, meaning "village" or "settlement". Related translations include "land" or "town", with subsequent terminologies meaning "cluster of dwellings" or "collection of huts". This explanation is historically documented in Jacques Cartier's Bref récit et succincte narration de la navigation faite en MDXXXV et MDXXXVI.
Although the Laurentian language, which was spoken by the inhabitants of St. Lawrence Valley settlements such as Stadacona (modern-day Quebec City) and Hochelaga (modern-day Montreal) in the 16th century, is now extinct, it was closely related to other dialects of the Iroquoian languages, such as the Oneida and Mohawk languages. The word kaná:ta' still means "town" in Mohawk, and related cognates include ganataje and iennekanandaa in the Onondaga and Seneca languages respectively. Prior to archeological confirmation that the St. Lawrence Iroquois were a separate people from the Mohawk, most sources specifically linked the name's origin to the Mohawk word instead of the Laurentian one.
A widespread perception in Canadian folklore is that Cartier misunderstood the term "Canada" as the existing proper name of the Iroquois people's entire territory rather than the generic class noun for a town or village — for instance, the Historica Foundation of Canada's Heritage Minute film devoted to Cartier's landing at Hochelaga is scripted as having Cartier believe that "Kanata" or "Canada" was the established name of the entire country. This is not supported by Cartier's own writings, however — in Bref récit, Cartier fully understands the actual meaning of the word ("They call a town Canada"), and his earliest name for the wider territory is "le pays des Canadas" ("country of Canadas", "land of Canadas" or "land of villages").
While the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian origin for the name Canada is now widely accepted, other theories have been put forth in the past.
The most common alternative theory suggested that the name originated when Portuguese or Spanish explorers, having explored the northern part of the continent and unable to find gold and silver, wrote cá nada ("nothing here" in Portuguese), acá nada, aqui nada or el cabo de nada ("Cape Nothing" in Spanish) on that part of their maps. An alternative explanation favoured by philologist Marshall Elliott linked the name to the Spanish word "cañada", meaning "glen" or "valley".
The earliest iterations of the Spanish "nothing here" theory stated that the explorers made the declaration upon visiting the Bay of Chaleur, while later versions left out any identifying geographic detail.
The known Portuguese presence in modern Canadian territory, meanwhile, was located in Newfoundland and Labrador. Neither region is located anywhere near Iroquoian territory, and the name Canada does not appear on any Spanish or Portuguese maps of the North American coast that predate Cartier's visit. No name for the Bay of Chaleur is attested at all in Spanish sources from that period, while the only name for Newfoundland attested in Portuguese sources is Terra Nova do Bacalhao, after the region's plentiful cod.
In most versions of the Iberian origin theory, the Spanish or Portuguese passed their name on to the Iroquois, who rapidly adopted it in place of their own prior word for a village; however, no historical evidence for any such Iberian-Iroquoian interaction has ever actually been found. Elliott's "valley" theory, conversely, was that the Spanish gave their name for the area directly to Cartier, who then entirely ignored or passed over the virtually identical Iroquoian word. According to Elliott, Cartier never explicitly stated that there was a direct connection between canada or kanata as the Iroquoian word for "village" and Canada as the new name of the entire territory, and never accounted for the spelling difference between kanata and Canada—and thus the Spanish etymology had to be favoured because the spellings matched. Notably, Cartier never wrote of having any awareness of any preexisting Spanish or Portuguese name for the region either, meaning that Elliott's allegation that the kanata derivation was not adequately supported by Cartier's own writing on the matter was also true of his own preferred theory.
Franciscan priest André Thevet claimed that the word derived from segada canada, an answer reportedly given by Spaniards in the St. Lawrence Valley area when asked what their purpose was; according to Thevet, the phrase meant that they were seeking land or that they were hunting.
British philologist B. Davies surmised that by the same process which initially saw the First Nations mislabelled as Indians, the country came to be named for the Carnata region of India or that region's Kannada ethnic group, although his theory has attracted no significant support from other academics.
Additional theories have attributed the name "Canada" to a word in an unspecified indigenous language for "mouth of the country" in reference to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to a Cree word for "neat or clean", to a claimed Innu war cry of "kan-na-dun, Kunatun", to a shared Cree and Innu word, "p'konata", which purportedly meant "without a plan" or "I don't know", to a short-lived French colony purportedly established by a settler whose surname was Cane, to Cartier's description elsewhere in his writings of Labrador as "the land God gave to Cain", or to a claim that the early French habitants demanded a "can a day" of spruce beer from the local intendant (a claim easily debunked by the facts that the habitants would have been speaking French, not English, and that canning did not exist until the 19th century).
In their 1983 book The Anglo Guide to Survival in Québec, humourists Josh Freed and Jon Kalina tied the Iberian origin theory to the phrase nada mas caca ("nothing but shit"). No historian or linguist has ever analyzed this explanation as anything more than an obvious joke.
The demonym "Canadien" or "Canadian" used to refer exclusively to the indigenous groups who were native to the territory. Its use was extended over time to the French settlers of New France, and later the English settlers of Upper Canada.
European explorer Jacques Cartier transcribed the word as "Canada" and was the first European to use the word to refer not only to the village of Stadacona but also to the neighbouring region and to the Saint Lawrence River, which he called rivière de Canada during his second voyage in 1535. By the mid 1500s, European books and maps began referring to this region as Canada. Canada became the name of a colony in New France that stretched along the St. Lawrence River. The terms "Canada" and "New France" were often used interchangeably during the colonial period.
After the British conquest of New France (including ceding of the French colony, Canada) in 1763, the colony was renamed the Province of Quebec. Following the American revolution and the influx of United Empire Loyalists into Quebec, the colony was split on 26 December 1791 into Upper and Lower Canada, sometime being collectively known as "The Canadas", the first time that the name "Canada" was used officially, in the British regime.
Some reports from the 1840s suggest that in that era, the word "Canada" was commonly pronounced "Kaugh-na-daugh" rather than its more contemporary pronunciation.
Upper and Lower Canada were merged into one colony, the Province of Canada, in 1841, based on the recommendations of the Durham Report. The former colonies were then known as Canada East and Canada West, and a single legislature was established with equal representation from each. Underpopulated Canada West opposed demands by Canada East for representation by population, but the roles reversed as Canada West's population surpassed the east's. The single colony remained governed in this way until 1 July 1867, often with coalition governments. A new capital city was being built at Ottawa, chosen in 1857 by Queen Victoria, and became a national capital.
At the conferences held in London to determine the form of confederation that would unite the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), the Province of New Brunswick and the Province of Nova Scotia, a delegate from either Nova Scotia or New Brunswick proposed the name Canada in February 1867, and it was unanimously accepted by the other delegates. There appears to have been little discussion, though other names were suggested.
Walter Bagehot of The Economist newspaper in London argued that the new nation should be called Northland or Anglia instead of Canada. On these names, the statesman Thomas D'Arcy McGee commented, "Now I would ask any honourable member of the House how he would feel if he woke up some fine morning and found himself, instead of a Canadian, a Tuponian or a Hochelegander?".
During the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, John A. Macdonald, who later became the first Prime Minister of Canada, talked of "founding a great British monarchy", in connection with the British Empire. He advocated, in the fourth Canadian draft of the British North America Act, the name "Kingdom of Canada," in the text is said:
The word 'Parliament' shall mean the Legislature or Parliament of the Kingdom of Canada.
The word 'Kingdom' shall mean and comprehend the United Provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.
The words 'Privy Council' shall mean such persons as may from time to time be appointed, by the Governor General, and sworn to aid and advise in the Government of the Kingdom.
Canada's founders, led by Sir John A. Macdonald wished their new nation to be called the Kingdom of Canada, to "fix the monarchical basis of the constitution." The governor general at the time, the Viscount Monck, supported the move to designate Canada a kingdom; however, officials at the Colonial Office in London opposed this potentially "premature" and "pretentious" reference for a new country. They were also wary of antagonizing the United States, which had emerged from its Civil War as a formidable military power with unsettled grievances because British interests had sold ships to the Confederacy despite a blockade, and thus opposed the use of terms such as kingdom or empire to describe the new country.
New Brunswick premier Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley suggested the term 'Dominion', inspired by Psalm 72:8 (from the King James Bible): "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth." This is also echoed in Canada's motto: A Mari Usque Ad Mare (Latin for "from sea to sea").
The term had been used for centuries to refer to the lands held by a monarch, and had previously been adopted as titles for the Dominion of New England and the Dominion and Colony of Virginia. It continued to apply as a generic term for the major colonial possessions of the British Empire until well into the 20th century, although Tilley and the other Fathers of Confederation broadened the meaning of the word 'dominion' to a "virtual synonym for sovereign state". Its adoption as a title for Canada in 1867 served the purpose of upholding the monarchist principle in Canada; in a letter to Queen Victoria, Lord Carnarvon stated: "The North American delegates are anxious that the United Provinces should be designated as the 'Dominion of Canada.' It is a new title, but intended on their part as a tribute to the Monarchical principle which they earnestly desire to uphold.".
Macdonald, however, bemoaned its adoption. In a letter to Lord Knutsford on the topic of the loss of the use of the word kingdom, Macdonald said:
A great opportunity was lost in 1867 when the Dominion was formed out of the several provinces…The declaration of all the B.N.A. provinces that they desired as one dominion to remain a portion of the Empire, showed what wise government and generous treatment would do, and should have been marked as an epoch in the history of England. This would probably have been the case had Lord Carnarvon, who, as colonial minister, had sat at the cradle of the new Dominion, remained in office. His ill-omened resignation was followed by the appointment of the late Duke of Buckingham, who had as his adviser the then Governor General, Lord Monck - both good men, certainly, but quite unable, from the constitution of their minds, to rise to the occasion. Had a different course been pursued, for instance, had united Canada been declared to be an auxiliary kingdom, as it was in the Canadian draft of the bill, I feel sure almost that the Australian colonies would, ere this, have been applying to be placed in the same rank as The Kingdom of Canada.
He added as a postscript that it was adopted on the suggestion of British colonial ministers to avoid offending republican sensibilities in the United States:
P.S. On reading the above over I see that it will convey the impression that the change of title from Kingdom to Dominion was caused by the Duke of Buckingham. This is not so. It was made at the instance of Lord Derby, then foreign minister, who feared the first name would wound the sensibilities of the Yankees. I mentioned this incident in our history to Lord Beaconsfield at Hughenden in 1879, who said, 'I was not aware of the circumstance, but it is so like Derby, a very good fellow, but who lives in a region of perpetual funk.'
Use of the term dominion was formalized in 1867 through Canadian Confederation. In the Constitution of Canada, namely the Constitution Act, 1867 (British North America Acts), the preamble of the Act indicates:
Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom....
And section 2 indicates that the provinces:
... shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada; and on and after that Day those Three Provinces shall form and be One Dominion under that Name accordingly.
In J.S. Ewart's two volume work, The Kingdom Papers, it is noted that the following names were considered for the union of British North America: "The United Colony of Canada", "the United Provinces of Canada", and "the Federated Provinces of Canada". Ewart was also an ardent advocate for the formation of "the Republic of Canada", a position which was rarely expressed in those times.
The French translation of the 1867 British North America Act translated "One Dominion under the Name of Canada" as "une seule et même Puissance sous le nom de Canada" using Puissance (power) as a translation for dominion. Later the English loan-word dominion was also used in French.
The Fathers of Confederation met at the Quebec Conference of 1864 to discuss the terms of this new union. One issue on the agenda was to determine the Union's "feudal rank" (see Resolution 71 of the Quebec Conference, 1864). The candidates for the classification of this new union were: "the Kingdom of Canada" (le Royaume du Canada), "the Realm of Canada" (le Royaume du Canada), "the Union of Canada" (l'Union du Canada), and "the Dominion of Canada" (le Dominion du Canada).
There are numerous references in United Kingdom Acts of Parliament to "the Dominion of Canada" and the British North America Act, 1867 referred to the formation of "one Dominion under the name of Canada". Nonetheless, the term "Dominion of Canada" appears in the Constitution Act, 1871 — usage of which was "sanctioned" — and both appear in other texts of the period, as well as on numerous Canadian banknotes before 1935.
Until the 1950s, the term Dominion of Canada was commonly used to identify the country. As Canada acquired political authority and autonomy from the United Kingdom, the federal government began using simply Canada on state documents. The government of Louis St. Laurent ended the practice of using 'Dominion' in the Statutes of Canada in 1951. Quebec nationalist leaders objected that dominion suggested that Ottawa would have control over Quebec. Under Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent, compromises were reached that quietly, and without legislation, "dominion" was retired in official names and statements, usually replaced by "federal". Dominion Day remained until in May 1980 when a private member's bill to replace the name with Canada Day was unexpectedly passed in the House. In the Senate, Eugene Forsey and the Monarchist League of Canada strongly defended the traditional usage. When a Gallup poll showed 70 percent of all Canadians favoured the change, the Senate approved the bill without a recorded vote.
The 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth dropped "Dominion" in her official title, and the UK replaced "dominion" with "realm" to refer to the Commonwealth countries. The 1982 Canada Act referred only to Canada, and the national holiday was renamed from Dominion Day to Canada Day. Section 4 of the 1867 BNA Act also declares that:
Unless it is otherwise expressed or implied, the Name Canada shall be taken to mean Canada as constituted under this Act.
and this has been interpreted to mean that the name of the country is simply Canada. No constitutional statute amends this name, and the subsequent Canada Act 1982 does not use the term dominion. Official sources of the United Nations system, international organizations (such as the Organization of American States), the European Union, the United States, and other polities with which Canada has official relations as a state consistently use Canada as the only official name, state that Canada has no long-form name, or that the formal name is simply Canada. No Canadian legal document states that the name of the country is anything other than Canada.
The terms Dominion and Dominion of Canada are still considered to be appropriate, although arcane, titles for the country. The federal government continues to produce publications and educational materials that specify the currency of these titles, although these publications are not themselves legal or official documents. For instance, in 2008 the Canadian government registered the Maple Leaf Tartan, designed in 1964, with the Scottish Tartans Authority. The tartan's alternate name is "Dominion of Canada."
The terms Dominion of Canada and Dominion have also been used to distinguish contemporary (post-1867) Canada from either the earlier Province of Canada or from the even earlier The Canadas. The terms have also been used to distinguish the federal government from the provinces, though in this usage "federal" has replaced "dominion". For example, The Canadian Almanac stopped using Dominion of Canada in 1964.
in the note of Charlevoix, Nouvelle France, volume the first, page nine, of the quarto edition, and repeated in "Beautés de l'Histoire du Canada" affords the real solution of the difficulty: "Quelqu'uns derivent ce nom du mot Iroquois Kannata qui se prononce Cannada, et signifie un amas de cabanes;"–"Some derive this name from the Iroquois word Kannata, pronounced Cannada, signifying a collection of huts."
In 1867, the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are united in a federal state, the Dominion of Canada.