THUNDER BAY – The next time you use a map of Ontario, take a closer look. The names of our lakes and rivers, cities and towns, hills and valleys are more than just location identifiers. Geographical and place names are cultural and historical markers, reflecting who we are and where we’ve come from.
Northern Ontario has a long list of names that have relations to our past.
Many names on the map signify the deep and enduring connection to this land that First Nations people have had for thousands of years. Also represented is the history of the French and English explorers and settlers whose presence in the province dates back to the early 17th century. Other names may commemorate important events and notable individuals, reflect later waves of immigration to Ontario, or just be descriptive.
The Ontario Geographic Names Board is an advisory agency responsible for recording and naming geographical features in the province. Operating under the guidance of long-standing principles and procedures, this independent authority makes recommendations for geographic names to the Minister of Natural Resources who has final approval.
In 2010, in response to the Far North Act, the naming principles for geographic features in the province were revised by the board to recognize the contribution of First Nations to the naming process.
For the first time in Ontario, it is now possible for the board to modify an existing English or French geographic name so that it forms a dual name with First Nation languages where appropriate.
Natural Resources Minister Michael Gravelle recently approved the first set of recommendations for dual names. Commonly used Ojibway names for 17 lakes in northwestern Ontario were put forward by Pikangikum First Nation.
“The adoption of the Pikangikum names for these 17 lakes opens the door to further recognition of First Nations’ names in northern Ontario,” shared Minister Gravelle. “The use of dual names celebrates Ontario’s rich, cultural diversity and connects us to people and events from thousands of years of history.”
A slash separates the two halves of the new dual names. For example, Sparling Lake now becomes Wahpeeseewee Sahkaheekkahn/Sparling Lake. The First Nation name appears first in recognition of the first right of discovery. Equal official status is given to both the First Nation and the current official name.
“Careful consideration was given to how dual names will be applied and used,” said Gravelle. “Incorporating the common names used by First Nations people of the area was balanced with the need to maintain visibility of the current official names for emergency response and fire fighting activities.”
As part of the process to adopt dual names for the 17 lakes, extensive consultation was undertaken in the summer of 2011 with Pikangikum First Nation, the ministries of Natural Resources and Tourism, the Municipality of Red Lake, and local outfitter and tourism businesses.
Because some of the existing lake names commemorated war casualties from the two world wars, veteran associations were also informed of the project and expressed support for the changes.
The chair of the Ontario Geographic Names Board, Dr. Andre Lapierre, will make a presentation to the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in New York this summer describing Ontario’s consultative approach to changes in geographic naming.