The Origins of 6 Odd Canadian Place Names

Verne Equinox
Verne Equinox / Verne Equinox

Last year, I posted Origins of 8 of the Strangest Place Names in Canada. You had a lot more suggestions for odd place names in Canada, so I looked up quite a few. Many of the communities have names that aren’t even considered odd to the residents, and no one knows how they originated. Or if they do, it’s not documented on the internet. But some have interesting stories behind them.

1. Medicine Hat, Alberta

The city of Medicine Hat got its name from the Blackfoot term Saamis, which refers to the headdress of eagle feather worn by a medicine man. That’s pretty straightforward, but there’s a great story behind the city’s origins. The Blackfoot nation was suffering from a famine, and selected a courageous warrior to venture out to find food. He traveled with his wife and his dog down the frozen South Saskatchewan River until they came to a spot where there was a hole in the ice. That’s the sign of a sacred place, where the water spirits come to breathe. It was also the location of the future town of Medicine Hat.

They made camp and summoned the spirits to appear. A giant serpent rose from the misty waters and demanded the sacrifice of the woman in exchange for a “Saamis” or “holy bonnet” which would endow the owner with special powers and great hunting prowess. The young man tried to trick the serpent by throwing the body of his dog into the river, but the serpent was not fooled, and finally reluctantly, the woman was thrown into the frigid waters. The man was told to spend the night on the small island (Strathcona) and “in the morning when the sun lights the cut-banks, go to the base of the great cliffs and there you will find your Medicine Hat”. And so aided by the magic of his Saamis, the young hunter located the much needed game, saved his people, and eventually became a great Medicine Man.

The story is enshrined in a brick mural inside City Hall.

2. Come By Chance, Newfoundland and Labrador

Photograph by Flickr user RicLaf.

Come By Chance on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland is where the Come By Chance River meets Placentia Bay. The original name of the community was Passage Harbor, a name designated in 1612. In 1706, Major Lloyd sent a dispatch about a battle between the English and the French and referred to the location as Comby Chance. Not long after, the spelling seems to have settled into the same name as the river, which is actually classified as a stream. How the stream got that name is a lost story, but we can imagine that someone came upon it by chance.

3. Eyebrow, Saskatchewan

Photograph by Happy Gecko.

Eyebrow came by its name honestly. There is a hill there shaped like an eyebrow, which gave a name to the nearby Eyebrow Lake. The town had 135 people as of 2006, and it has a mayor and a Village Council.

4. Joe Batt's Arm, Newfoundland and Labrador

Photograph by Verne Equinox.

Joe Batt’s Arm is a community on the northeast coat of Fogo Island. Joe Batt was the first European settler, thought to be a deserter from Captain James Cook’s fleet around 1750. The locals liked Joe Batt, so they named the community after him. The arm? Oh, they didn’t name the town after his arm! “Arm” is an old term for an inlet, which the town was built around.

5. Moonbeam, Ontario

Photograph by P199.

Moonbeam was founded along the Transcontinental Railroad in the early 1900s. Early pioneers who settled in the area that became Moonbeam reported seeing flashing lights falling from the sky, which they called “moonbeams.” This became the name of the nearby creek, which ran into Rémi Lake near the town. It’s possible this could have been the Aurora Borealis, or it could have been rays of light from the moon. Or aliens. Either way, the town has embraced the connotations of its name. Its mascot is an alien named Kilo. The Moonbeam Tourist Center has a full-size flying saucer in front as a city landmark.

6. Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

Photograph by Shawn from Airdrie, Canada.

The city of Moose Jaw is on the Moose Jaw River, and its residents are called Moose Javians. They sometimes refer to their hometown as “The Jaw.” The area was an encampment long before European settlers arrived, between the river and a range of hills that shelter it from cold winds. The Cree name for the settlement was moscâstani-sîpiy, meaning “a warm place by the river.” The official story is that “Moose Jaw” is close to the pronunciation of the original name’s first two syllables. The Cree term moose gaw means “warm breezes.”