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Place Naming in Canada

The Coleman Merchantile building located in Coleman. While the practice of naming places is as old as human language itself, it is interesting to note that Canada's official place-naming history is little over one hundred years old. Prior to 1897, when the Geographic Board of Canada was created, Canada had no legislative governmental body to regulate and inventory its vast array of place names.

There were three main reasons for the government's decision to establish the Board. The first was the need to enlist a nation-wide authority on place names during the expansive survey of the international boundary between Canada and the United States, which was taking place at this time. The second reason pertained to the influx of new settlers and surveyors to uncharted parts of Western Canada. The availability of good farmland and natural resources demanded an effective government-regulated system to chart and distribute the newly-surveyed regions. Last but not least, the Board was created to quell what it saw as abuses committed on the part of European settlers, who would often replace Aboriginal place names with names taken from their European homelands. According to the Canadian government at the time, this practice was disrespectful, because it ignored the traditions and heritage of those indigenous to the region.

Today, provinces have the final say on place naming, but this practice only began after 1961, when the power to make such decisions shifted from the federal to the provincial level. Prior to that date, Alberta had only provisional say in the decision-making process. In 1946, with the creation of the Geographic Board of Alberta, and the passing of the Geographical Names Act three years later, Alberta began to assume a more active role in the process of place-naming. The Geographic Board of Alberta was established to monitor this process, and consisted of historians and academics, as well as Alberta's first provincial archivist.

Through the latter half of the 20th Century, the government passed a number of acts, leaving the authority to approve geographical names with the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation Board, still in effect today. This new Board consists of appointed Alberta citizens from all over the province. However, toponymic decisions in areas administered by the federal government (such as military bases, Native reserves, and national parks) must be passed at the federal level, as well as the provincial, before they can take effect.

The Geographic Board of Canada, while not dissolving entirely, has evolved into the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. This new body acts as a registry for Canadian place names, as well as a middleman for interactions between the provincial and federal governments on the topic of place-naming, but has no veto power over toponymic decisions.

Generally, official names are chosen in Alberta based on their prevalence of use throughout local communities, especially if the connection between the name and the geographical location is historically significant. In the next section, we will examine some of the historical trends which had a major influence on the place names of Alberta we recognize today.

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            For more on place names of Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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