Legistics
Geographical names

Introduction

Section 38 of the Interpretation Act states that "the name commonly applied to any country, place . . . or thing means the country, place . . . or thing to which the name is commonly applied, although the name is not the formal or extended designation thereof." This provision advocates a common-sense approach to naming geographical entities in legislation. However, there are well-established policies and practices governing the writing of geographical names in federal documents, and it is only logical that federal legislation abide by them.

These policies and practices are based on the principles set out in Treasury Board Circular 1983-58, which implemented the policy adopted at the time by the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (CPCGN) on the treatment of geographical names in federal bilingual documents. TB Circular 1983-58 identified the CPCGN, known today as the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC),[1] as the body responsible for authorizing the geographical names to be used on federal maps. It also recognized the Translation Bureau as the body responsible for determining the treatment of those names in prose texts. Today, the GNBC and the Bureau, along with the Gazetteer of Canada, are the most authoritative sources of information on the writing and translation of Canadian geographical names.

The field of geographical naming is vast and subject to considerable and continuing analysis in Canada. This article provides some basic guidelines for legislative counsel of the English version of legislative texts and identifies the sources they can consult for more detailed information. For practical purposes, geographical names have been divided into four categories:

1. Canadian geographical names having one official version (English or French)

Quick consultation guide for names of this type

Canadian Geographical Names Data Base

This is the national and most authoritative repository of official Canadian geographical names, including those authorized by the provinces and territories. It may be consulted on the GNBC web site: http://geonames.nrcan.gc.ca/search/search_e.php.

Termium

The information in the Translation Bureau's terminology bank complements that in the Canadian Geographic Names Data Base.

Canada's Geographical Names Approved in English and French

This is a document produced by the GNBC and available for consultation on its web site, under Gazetteers and publications. Its Appendix 3 provides useful and still current guidelines on the writing and translation of geographical names.

Gazetteer of Canada series

This has traditionally been the most authoritative source, but since it is in paper form, it is not as up to date as the first three.

Principles and Procedures for Geographical Naming, 2001

This is a GNBC document available on the GNBC web site that provides detailed rules on the designation and translation of geographical names. See in particular Principles 8, 9 and 12, and Appendices 3 and 5. The information regarding bilingual official names (Principle 1, Note 2) may not be up to date.

The Canadian Style

Chapter 15 provides extensive information on the subject. The information regarding bilingual official names (15.04, 15.15) may not be up to date.

Glossary of Generic Terms in Canada's Geographical Names(BT 176)

This glossary, produced jointly by the CPCGN and the Translation Bureau, provides bilingual versions of generics (explained under Geographical features, below). An Addition to the glossary is available on the GNBC web site.

Most geographical entities in Canada have only one official name. However, the treatment of that name in a document depends on whether the entity is an inhabited place or a geographical feature.

(a) Inhabited places (cities, towns, municipalities)

Inhabited places - with the exception of those listed in Canada's Geographical Names Approved in English and French and dealt with in part 2 of this article - have only one official name: the name adopted by the provincial or federal authority in whose jurisdiction it is located. The official name, as it appears in the Gazetteer of Canada or the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base, is to be used in both English and French documents. Therefore, the following names should be used in the English version of a legislative text:

  • Montréal (not Montreal)
  • Québec (not Quebec City)[2]

Admittedly, this represents a departure from long-standing drafting practice and from usage among the general public, and therefore there may be a psychological barrier to overcome in following the rule. Moreover, there is the practical concern that, in the case of "Québec", at times it may not be clear whether the reference is to the city or the province (although the name of the province is written as "Quebec" in English-language documents). One solution, provided in Termium and considered acceptable by the Geographical Names Board of Canada, is to use, if the context permits, "city (or City) of Québec". Termium and The Canadian Style recommend "city" in reference to the geographical entity and "City" in reference to the corporate entity.

Examples:

  • The head office of the Foundation shall be in the city of Québec.
  • The Commissioner shall hear any complaint made by the City of Québec against the Corporation.

(b) Geographical features (lakes, mountains, rivers, etc.)

The names of geographical features consist of a generic component, which identifies the type of feature, and a specific component, which is the proper name of the feature. In "Buck Lake", for example, "Lake" is the generic and "Buck" is the specific.

Under the federal policy, it is permissible to translate the generic component of the name, but the specific component must always be identical to the one that appears in the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base or the Gazetteer of Canada. For example, "lac Saint-Jean" can be written in English as "Saint-Jean Lake"; "mont Adagio", as "Mount Adagio"; and "rivière Abitibi", as "Abitibi River". The French and English equivalents for many generics are provided in Termium, in the Translation Bureau's Glossary of Generic Terms in Canada's Geographical Names (BT 176) and in the Additions to that glossary provided on the GNBC web site.

2. Canadian geographical names having two official versions (English or French)

Quick consultation guide for names of this type

Canada's Geographical Names Approved in English and French

This document may be consulted on the GNBC web site: http://geonames.nrcan.gc.ca/search/search_e.php. It should be consulted first, since it is likely to contain the most up-to-date information. See below for a detailed list of its contents.

Canadian Geographical Names Data Base

As mentioned earlier, this is the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information. It contains all official Canadian geographical names.

Termium

This terminology bank may provide information that is not available in the above sources or that is complementary to them, and tends to be up to date.

Gazetteer of Canada series

Again, this has traditionally been the most authoritative source, but since it is in published form, it is not as up to date as the first three.

Although most geographical names have only one official form, some have two (English and French). While the accuracy of a geographical name can be checked in the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base or the Gazetteer of Canada, it may not be obvious from those sources whether the name has an official version in the other language.

The best source of information on bilingual official names is Canada's Geographical Names Approved in English and French, which sets out various categories of such names in easy-to-consult lists. Legislative counsel may find the following lists useful for the English version of legislative texts:

(a) Names of pan-Canadian significance

This is a list of entities (chiefly geographical features) in Canada that have established, well-known names in both English and French. Both names were recognized by Treasury Board Circular 1983-58 as having official status. Legislative counsel should use the English name.

Examples:

Les Appalaches
Appalachian Mountains
Québec
Quebec (the province)
Rivière Saint-Jean
Saint John River

(b) Names of features shared by two provinces and having official status

These are the names of entities (mainly bodies of water) shared between Quebec and another province. The portion in Quebec has one official name, and the portion in the other province has another.

Examples:

In Quebec: In Newfoundland and Labrador:
Mont D'Iberville Mount Caubvick
Lac Des Marets Cheeseman Lake

In Quebec: In New Brunswick:
Cours d'eau Courchesne Kitchen Brook
Rivière Kedgwick North Branch Kedgwick River

If both portions of the entity are being referenced in a legislative text, the legislative counsel should use both names, but make it clear that only one entity is being referred to, as in the following example:

"The licence is valid in respect of the body of water known as Lac Des Marets in Quebec and as Cheeseman Lake in Newfoundland and Labrador."

If the names are being used in a list, similar care should be taken to remove any ambiguity, although the solution may vary with each case.

(c) Geographical names approved in both English and French within one province

This is a list of entities (primarily inhabited places) that have an English name and a French name, both of which have been accorded official status by the province. The provincial practice is followed in federal documents.Legislative counsel should use the English name.

Examples:

Caissie Cape (New Brunswick rural community
Cap-des-Caissie
French River (Ontario municipality)
Rivière des Français
Albert Beach (Manitoba locality)
Plage Albert

(d) Undersea feature names approved in English and French

This is a very long list that sets out the names of the features in alphabetical order in both English and French.

(e) Names of international waters adjacent to Canada approved in English and French

The waters in question are those shared with Greenland or with the United States.

(f) Names of national parks of Canada and national historic sites of Canada in English and French

This is a long list that sets out, by province, the names of national parks (including proposed national parks), national park reserves, national historic sites of Canada, and heritage canals.

3. Foreign geographical names

Quick consultation guide for names of this type

List of Independent States

This list is available on the GNBC web site under "Information for translators"(http://geonames.nrcan.gc.ca/info/tra_e.php). Look under "Names of sovereign states", then "list of English and French names of sovereign states". The list provides a ready reference for the names of foreign countries. It is updated in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Translation Bureau.

List of Country Names (BT 264)

This list, which is produced by the Translation Bureau and may be more up to date than the GNBC list, is available at http://www.bureaudelatraduction.gc.ca/index.php?lang=english&cont=686.

Termium

Some foreign geographical names have been standardized in Termium.

Guidelines for Names Outside Canada for Official Canadian Use

Like the above-mentioned List of Independent States, this GNBC document is found on the Board's web site under "Information for translators", then "Names of sovereign states" (http://geonames.nrcan.gc.ca/info/tra_e.php).

To assist with the writing of foreign geographical names not found in the first three sources listed above, the GNBC has approved the Guidelines for Names Outside Canada for Official Canadian Use, which sets out the principles to follow and the types of sources (gazetteers, atlases, etc.) to consult in this field. Although the document does not list specific reference works, the GNBC toponymist consulted in the writing of this article commented favourably on the Times Atlas of the World and the National Geographic atlases with respect to English-language place names, and on the Bordas atlases with respect to French-language place names.

Footnotes

  • [1] The GNBC is part of the Department of Natural Resources. The precursor of the GNBC and the CPCGN, the Geographic Board of Canada, was created in 1897 by the federal government to approve and standardize the writing of Canadian geographical names. Initially, the Geographic Board of Canada had sole authority for naming geographical entities, but over time that authority devolved to the federal departments, provinces and territories with authority over the area in which the entity was located. Today, the GNBC retains a central co-ordinating role with respect to the treatment of Canadian and foreign place names in federal maps and documents, and Order in Council P.C. 2000-283 requires federal departments, agencies and crown corporations to abide by the GNBC's decisions in the matter.
  • [2] Conversely, the French drafter would use "The Pas" (not "Le Pas") and "Saint John" (not Saint-Jean).
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