The Story of How Canada Got Its Name

A portrait of French explorer Jacques Cartier
Rischgitz / Hutton Archive / Getty Images

The name "Canada" comes from "kanata," the Iroquois-Huron word for "village" or "settlement." The Iroquois used the word to describe the village of Stadacona, present-day Quebec City.

During his second voyage to "New France" in 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed up the Saint Lawrence River for the first time. The Iroquois pointed him in the direction of "kanata," the village at Stadacona, which Cartier misinterpreted as a reference to both the village of Stadacona and the wider area subject to Donnacona, the Stadacona Iroquois chief.

During Cartier's 1535 trip, the French established along the Saint Lawrence the colony of "Canada," the first colony in what the French called "New France." Use of "Canada" gained prominence from there. 

The Name "Canada" Takes Hold (1535 to the 1700s)

By 1545, European books and maps had begun referring to this small region along the Saint Lawrence River as "Canada." By 1547, maps were showing the name Canada as everything north of the St. Lawrence River. Cartier referred to the St. Lawrence River as la rivière du Canada ("the river of Canada"), and the name began to take hold. Even though the French called the region New France, by 1616 the entire area along the great river of Canada and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence was still called Canada.

As the country expanded to the west and the south in the 1700s, "Canada" was the unofficial name of an area spanning the American Midwest, extending as far south as what is now the state of Louisiana.

After the British conquered New France in 1763, the colony was renamed the Province of Quebec. Then, as British loyalists headed north during and after the American Revolutionary War, Quebec was divided into two parts.

Canada Becomes Official

In 1791, the Constitutional Act, also called the Canada Act, divided the Province of Quebec into the colonies of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. This marked the first official use of the name Canada. In 1841, the two Quebecs were united again, this time as the Province of Canada.

On July 1, 1867, Canada was adopted as the legal name for the new country of Canada upon its confederation. On that date, the Confederation Convention formally combined the Province of Canada, which included Quebec and Ontario, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as "one Dominion under the name of Canada." This produced the physical configuration of modern Canada, which is today the second largest country in the world by area (after Russia). July 1 is still celebrated as Canada Day.

Other Names Considered for Canada

Canada wasn't the only name considered for the new dominion, although it was ultimately chosen by unanimous vote at the Confederation Convention. 

Several other names were suggested for the northern half of the North American continent leading up to confederation, some of which were later repurposed elsewhere in the country. The list included Anglia (a medieval Latin name for England), Albertsland, Albionora, Borealia, Britannia, Cabotia, Colonia, and Efisga, an acronym for the first letters of the countries England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, with the "A" for "Aboriginal."

Other names floated for consideration were Hochelaga, Laurentia (a geological name for part of North America), Norland, Superior, Transatlantia, Victorialand and Tuponia, an acrostic for The United Provinces of North America.

This is how the Canadian government remembers the name debate on ​

The debate was placed in perspective by Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who declared on February 9, 1865:
“I read in one newspaper not less than a dozen attempts to derive a new name. One individual chooses Tuponia and another Hochelaga as a suitable name for the new nationality. Now I ask any honourable member of this House how he would feel if he woke up some fine morning and found himself instead of a Canadian, a Tuponian or a Hochelagander.”
Fortunately for posterity, McGee’s wit and reasoning–along with common sense–prevailed...

The Dominion of Canada

"Dominion" became part of the name instead of "kingdom" as a clear reference that Canada was under British rule but still its own separate entity. After World War II, as Canada became more autonomous, the full name "Dominion of Canada" was used less and less.

The country's name was officially changed to "Canada" in 1982 when the Canada Act was passed, and it's been known by that name ever since.

The Fully Independent Canada

Canada did not become fully independent from Britain until 1982 when its constitution was "patriated" under the Constitution Act of 1982, or the Canada Act, The act essentially transferred the country's highest law, the British North America Act, from the authority of the British Parliament—a connection from the colonial past—to Canada's federal and provincial legislatures.

The document contains the original statute that established the Canadian Confederation in 1867 (the British North America Act), amendments that the British Parliament made to it over the years, and Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the result of fierce negotiations between the federal and provincial governments that set down basic rights ranging from freedom of religion to linguistic and educational rights based on the test of numbers.

Through it all, the name "Canada" has remained. 

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Munroe, Susan. "The Story of How Canada Got Its Name." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Munroe, Susan. (2020, August 25). The Story of How Canada Got Its Name. Retrieved from Munroe, Susan. "The Story of How Canada Got Its Name." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).