15 Geographical Names

15.01 Introduction

In a bilingual country such as Canada, questions arise as to the designations to be used in official documents for cities, towns, villages, lakes, rivers, mountains and other geographical entities and features that may have different but well-established designations in the two official languages or may be known by one name in one region and a different one elsewhere.

15.02 Background

On November 23, 1983, the Treasury Board issued its Circular No. 1983-58 to implement the policy adopted by the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (CPCGN) regarding the linguistic treatment of geographical names on federal maps and in federal documents.

The principles enunciated in the policy are as follows:

  • The official form of a geographical name is the one adopted by the provincial or federal authorities in whose jurisdiction an entity lies. This name can be found in the Gazetteer of Canada.
  • Certain geographical names of pan-Canadian significance (see list at the end of this chapter) have well-known, official forms in both English and French. Both forms may be used on maps and in documents.
  • All other geographical names have only one official form, which is the one to be used on federal maps in either official language.
  • In documents, it is permissible to translate the generic portion of names of geographical features, that is, the portion that indicates the nature of the entity (Lake in "Arrow Lake"), but not the specific portion that names the entity (Arrow in "Arrow Lake").
  • Names of inhabited places retain their official form in both English and French texts, e.g. Montréal (Que.), Saint John (N.B.), and St. John’s (N.L.)

The Treasury Board also designated the Translation Bureau as the organization responsible for determining what, in running text, should be the proper form of the names of geographical features in the other language.

In 1989 a committee made up of Translation Bureau and CPCGN representatives was assigned the task of examining the various problems encountered in translating official English names of Canadian geographical features into French and devising solutions. The committee produced the "General Rules for Translating and Writing the Names of Canadian Geographical Features,"1 the purpose of which was to standardize the translation and writing of geographical feature names within a sentence (rather than on a map). Although the rules were written for the translation of English names into French, the committee did recommend that, where applicable, they also be followed for the translation of French names into English.


  • Back to the note1  Gélinas-Surprenant, Hélène, "Uniformisation de l’écriture des noms géographiques au Canada," Terminology Update / L’Actualité terminologique, 23, 3 (1990) : 18-22.

15.03 Official geographical names

Official geographical names (or toponyms) are those approved by a provincial, territorial or federal toponymic authority. They are generally listed in the Gazetteer of Canada, which is produced by the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. Two kinds of geographical names are distinguished: names of inhabited places and names of geographical features.

15.04 Names of inhabited places

Only two municipalities in Canada have two official forms of their names, one in English and one in French: Grand Falls and Caissie Cape in New Brunswick, which are also known officially as Grand-Sault and Cap-des-Caissie. All other municipalities have only one authorized form: thus Montréal and Québec (the city) retain their accents in English.

15.05 Names of geographical features

In Canada most geographical features have only one official name, except for the 81 names of pan-Canadian significance that have official forms in both English and French. Some provinces (Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick) also recognize "alternate names" for well-known geographical features under their jurisdiction (see 15.15 Alternate names and provincial translations).

15.06 Generic and specific

As a general rule, the name of a geographical feature is composed of a generic and a specific. The specific is the part of the toponym that identifies the particular geographical feature in question. For example:

  • In Alexandria River, the specific is Alexandria.
  • In Crown Prince Frederik Island, the specific is Crown Prince Frederik.
  • In River of Ponds Lake, the specific is River of Ponds.

The generic is the part of the toponym that identifies a general class to which a specific geographical feature belongs. For example:

  • In Swampy Bay River, the generic is River.
  • In Bay d’Espoir, the generic is Bay.
  • In Little Francis Lake the generic is Lake.

15.07 Reinstatement of official English toponyms

Where the generic of an English-language place name has been translated into French, it is essential to restore it to its original English form when translating the French document into English. In the following sentence, the toponyms have been translated into French but their official forms are English:

  • Le relief du plateau est plus particulièrement remarquable dans le nord de l’île Somerset, sur la presqu’île Brodeur, ainsi que dans le centre et l’ouest de l’île Prince of Wales.

Since, in accordance with the rules, the specific parts of these toponyms (Somerset, Brodeur, Prince of Wales) have not been modified in any way, it becomes more a question of verifying the official English form in the appropriate gazetteer than a question of translation. The original names are Somerset Island, Brodeur Peninsula and Prince of Wales Island.

15.08 Translation of the generic

General rule

The generic of a geographical feature name may be translated:

  • lac Beauchamp / Beauchamp Lake
  • île Madame / Madame Island

French and English equivalents for generics have been established in the publication Glossary of Generic Terms in Canada’s Geographical Names.2


  • Back to the note2 Canada, Glossary of Generic Terms in Canada’s Geographical Names: TB 176 / Glossaire des génériques en usage dans les noms géographiques du Canada : BT 176.


The generic should not be translated in situations (a), (b), (c) and (d) below. The name is left in its official form and is followed, as needed, by a geographical term describing the nature of the entity, which will be indicated in the gazetteer of the province or territory concerned.

(a) The generic does not indicate the actual nature of the entity designated:

  • île Cooks (rock) / Île Cooks rock
  • lac Cochémère (pond) / Lac Cochémère pond

(b) The generic is rare or borrowed from a language other than English or French:

  • Hanbury Kopje hill
  • Loch Erne lake

(c) The generic is separated from the specific by one or more linking particles:

  • lac aux Saumons / Lac aux Saumons
  • baie de la Sorcière / Baie de la Sorcière
  • anse de la Pointe / Anse de la Pointe

(d) The name is preceded by the article "Le (La, Les, L’)," which is part of the toponym. The article is retained at the beginning of the toponym and the appropriate geographical term or a short description may be added for clarity:

  • Les Chutes / Les Chutes or the falls known as Les Chutes
  • La Grande Rivière / La Grande Rivière
  • Le Petit Étang / Le Petit Étang or the pond known as Le Petit Étang

15.09 Non-translation of the specific

With the exception of names of pan-Canadian significance and some alternate forms approved by provincial authorities, the specific is not translated. It must be left in its official form (that is, the form in which it appears in the gazetteer of the relevant province or territory), with all hyphens, articles, accents, diacritical marks and capital letters. Nothing is added and nothing omitted:

  • pointe Enragée / Enragée Point
  • rivière Saint-Augustin / Saint-Augustin River

15.10 Adjectives and points of the compass

Adjectives such as grand, petit, supérieur, inférieur, as well as points of the compass, are translated when they qualify the generic:

  • ruisseau Saint-Jean Nord / North Saint-Jean Creek
  • Petit lac Saint-Amour / Little Saint-Amour Lake
  • Petite rivière Grand / Little Grand River

They are not translated if they qualify the specific or replace it, or if they precede a generic not followed by a specific:

  • lac Grande Gueule / Grande Gueule Lake
  • rivière Ouest / Ouest River
  • Petit Ruisseau / Petit Creek

15.11 Scientific and geological names

Certain scientific names, and in particular names of geological features such as eskers, moraines, potholes, sandbanks, slides and spurs, seldom have official status. Only by consulting a gazetteer can you determine if the name used is an official geographical name.

15.12 Names of national parks

Names of national parks, national historic parks and canals, and historic sites are established by Parks Canada. The publication Toponymy and Terminology Used by Parks Canada contains a list of all such names and their equivalents.

15.13 Names of undersea features

Several names of undersea features have official forms in both English and French that have been approved by the Advisory Committee on Names for Undersea and Maritime Features. Consult the most recent edition of the Gazetteer of Undersea Feature Names.

15.14 Names of Indian reserves

All Indian reserves have an official name in both English and French. See the CPCGN gazetteers of provinces and territories for the appropriate equivalents.

15.15 Alternate names and provincial translations

Although the official names of toponyms should always be given preference, provincial and territorial authorities allow, in certain circumstances, the use of geographical names that are not official. New Brunswick has official names in both English and French for certain features and places.


Official name Equivalent name
approved for use
Plum River Rivière aux Prunes
Rat River Rivière aux Rats

Equivalent name Official name
Marais River Rivière aux Marais

New Brunswick

English official name French official name
Caissie Cape (rural community) Cap-des-Caissie
Second Falls (falls) Deuxième Sault
Grand Falls (town) Grand-Sault
St. Francis River Rivière Saint-François
Green River Rivière Verte


Official name Recommended official
alternate name
Detroit River Rivière Détroit
Second Falls (falls) Deuxième Sault
French River Rivière des Français
St. Clair River Rivière Sainte-Claire

15.16 Names of pan-Canadian significance

The 81 names of pan-Canadian significance established by the Treasury Board of Canada (Circular 1983-58) have well-known forms in both English and French. For the purposes of federal government publications, both forms are considered official.

Names beginning with A Names beginning with B Names beginning with C Names beginning with D Names beginning with E Names beginning with F Names beginning with G Names beginning with H Names beginning with J Names beginning with K Names beginning with L Names beginning with M Names beginning with N Names beginning with O Names beginning with P Names beginning with Q Names beginning with R Names beginning with S Names beginning with T Names beginning with U Names beginning with V Names beginning with W Names beginning with Y


Abitibi, Lake / lac Abitibi
Anticosti Island / île d’Anticosti
Appalachian Mountains / les Appalaches
Arctic Ocean / océan Arctique
Athabasca Lake / lac Athabasca
Athabasca River / rivière Athabasca
Atlantic Ocean / océan Atlantique


Baffin Bay / baie de Baffin
Baffin Island / île de Baffin
Beaufort Sea / mer de Beaufort
Belle Isle, Strait of / détroit de Belle-Isle
British Columbia / Colombie-Britannique


Cabot Strait / détroit de Cabot
Cape Breton Island / île du Cap-Breton
Chaleur Bay / baie des Chaleurs
Champlain, Lake / lac Champlain
Churchill River (Man.) / rivière Churchill
Churchill River (N.L.) / fleuve Churchill
Coast Mountains / chaîne Côtière
Columbia River / fleuve Columbia


Davis Strait / détroit de Davis


Ellesmere Island / île d’Ellesmere
Erie, Lake / lac Érié


Franklin, District of / district de Franklin
Fraser River / fleuve Fraser
Fundy, Baie of / baie de Fundy


Georgian Bay / baie Georgienne
Great Bear Lake / Grand lac de l’Ours
Great Slave Lake / Grand lac des Esclaves


Hudson Bay / baie d’Hudson
Hudson Strait / détroit d’Hudson
Huron, Lake / lac Huron


James Bay / baie James


Keewatin, District of / district de Keewatin


Labrador Sea / mer du Labrador
Laurentian Mountains / les Laurentides


Mackenzie, District of / district de Mackenzie
Mackenzie River / fleuve Mackenzie
Manitoba, Lake / lac Manitoba
Michigan, Lake / lac Michigan (not actually in Canada)


Nelson River / fleuve Nelson
New Brunswick / Nouveau-Brunswick
Newfoundland and Labrador / Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador
Niagara Falls / chutes Niagara
Nipigon, Lake / lac Nipigon
Nipissing, Lake / lac Nipissing
North Saskatchewan River / rivière Saskatchewan Nord
Northumberland Strait / détroit de Northumberland
Northwest Territories / Territoires du Nord-Ouest
Nova Scotia / Nouvelle-Écosse


Ontario, Lake / lac Ontario
Ottawa River / rivière des Outaouais


Pacific Ocean / océan Pacifique
Peace River / rivière de la Paix
Prince Edward Island / Île-du-Prince-Édouard


Quebec (province) / Québec (province)
Queen Charlotte Islands / îles de la Reine-Charlotte
Queen Elizabeth Islands / îles de la Reine-Élisabeth


Rainy Lake / lac à la Pluie
Rainy River / rivière à la Pluie
Red River / rivière Rouge
Restigouche River / rivière Restigouche
Rocky Mountains / montagnes Rocheuses


Sable Island / île de Sable
Saguenay River / rivière Saguenay
St. Clair, Lake / lac Sainte-Claire
Saint John River / rivière Saint-Jean
St. Lawrence River / fleuve Saint-Laurent
St. Lawrence, Gulf of / golfe du Saint-Laurent
Saskatchewan River / rivière Saskatchewan
South Saskatchewan River / rivière Saskatchewan Sud
Superior, Lake / lac Supérieur


Timiskaming, Lake / lac Témiscamingue


Ungava Bay / baie d’Ungava


Vancouver Island / île de Vancouver


Winnipeg, Lake / lac Winnipeg
Winnipegosis, Lake / lac Winnipegosis
Winnipeg River / rivière Winnipeg
Woods, Lake of the / lac des Bois


Yukon River / fleuve Yukon
Yukon Territory / Territoire du Yukon