Asphalt history lesson: What Deerfoot, Crowchild and Shaganappi say about Calgary

What a city chooses to name its roadways helps to create its identity and ground it in its past. From First Nations to the North West Mounted Police, Calgary's myriad concrete thoroughfares capture a unique character.

What's in a name? That which we call the Deerfoot by any other name would drive as sweet

Stephen Avenue is just one of Calgary's named streets, telling a story that many don't bother to read. (@RoguePhotoYYC/Twitter)

In September 2016, the City of Calgary decided to give the southwest ring road a First Nations name: Tsuut'ina Trail

The following article was originally published on Dec. 3, 2015.

Broadway, Champs Elysee, Oxford Street or Nanjing Road: names of streets can conjure up a sense of place, history and identity.

Calgary is a new(ish) city, but its street names convey some of its history, its people. From early police officers (think Macleod Trail or Brisebois Drive), and railway barons (Stephen Avenue), to a fast aboriginal runner (Deerfoot Trail), you can learn about Calgary's past if you choose to find out what's in a name.

How we choose to name our streets says something about how we think of our city. We write our identity into the asphalt.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

City hall actually has a policy about it all, but its starting point is a surprise.

Steve Wyton, who is the manager of corporate projects and asset management for the City of Calgary, said the most important criteria for selecting a name for a street is safety. As in if you're having a heart attack and you're telling a 911 operator you are on Smith Street, there had better not be a Smyth Street as well.

Deerfoot Trail was named after a well-known First Nations runner. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

But beyond safety and avoiding confusion, Wyton said the other criteria for street names include recognizing important local figures and physical landmarks. It's all about creating a sense of community and place.

"When we're naming communities and roads, we are recognizing the history of Calgary and helping to create a social fabric. Our infrastructure — as a physical foundation to our community — also becomes a reflection of the social fabric of what we stand for," said Wyton.

While some may slag our city for its N.E.-N.W.-S.E.-S.W. grid system and numbered streets, which can seem rather soulless, there's plenty of history out there. You just need to look.

Harry Hiller does. He's a professor of urban sociology at the University of Calgary and says names help form a city's unique identity.

"First of all, to distinguish one city from another. I think this is really critical," said Hiller.

Those 'trails' are distinctly Calgarian

He points out virtually every city and town in a place like Ontario has a King Street or a Queen Street. But it's the names unique to this place that make this city special. 

"There's no place else in the continent or in the world that has a major thoroughfare called Shaganappi Trail."

Hiller points out even the notion of a major street or freeway being called a "trail" is something that is distinctly Calgary. It harkens back to the oxcart trail that was used to carry supplies and people to Calgary from Fort Benton, Montana.

The names of streets can be a door for the curious to learn more of Calgary's story. Take Macleod Trail. Sounds pretty generic, but once you learn it was named after Col. James Macleod — the N.W.M.P officer who approved the name Fort Calgary — then you'll understand a significant piece of this city's history.  

Macleod Trail's name harkens back to the North West Mounted Police officer who approved the name Fort Calgary. (CBC)

How our city chooses to name its highways and byways can change over time. Historical events can erode a former identity. For example, Atlantic and Pacific Avenues once ran on either side of the CPR mainline through what's now downtown Calgary. That train line was the symbolic linking of those two great oceans.

That symbolism ended up on the dust heap of city history — replaced by Ninth and 10th avenues — and other original names also got the chop.

City hall washed away a lot of street culture in 1904.

The thinking was practicality — that as the city grew, there were too many names to remember and numbers would be easier. Several early Calgary streets had Scottish names to honour European settlers like Angus Avenue, McIntyre Avenue and McTavish Street. Gone. 

Streets in Bridgeland named after cities in Germany by those who settled in Calgary in the early 20th century have also been replaced by less romantic numbers. 

Rewriting history

But names came back into fashion. And it can be confusing. You know. Like Rundlecairn Way leading to Rundlecairn Road running into Rundlecairn Rise. Where now?

Still, names matter. And while city streets are now named for political leaders, settlers and locations, Calgary has named streets to honour the original people of this land.

First Nations which signed Treaty 7 are recognized through streets like Blackfoot Trail and Stoney Trail, as are great leaders like Chief Crowfoot.

An application to name new roads using the Blackfoot words for Mother Earth (Na'a Drive) and Eagle (Piita Way) will be discussed by the planning commission early next year. 

For Liam Haggarty, who teaches indigenous studies at Mount Royal University, there's a fine line in using certain names.

Crowchild Trail was named in honour of Sarcee chief David Crowchild. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

He said the renaming of the geography was a powerful tool in the settlement of this country. "Indigenous names being erased and being replaced by settler ones," said Haggarty.

The Treaty 7 nations have been honoured with names on major Calgary roads, but none of those roads actually have anything to do with those nations or their history. 

Haggarty points out some names are now out of date. Take Sarcee Trail and Peigan Trail. Those First Nations have changed their names. So the level of honour is questionable even if the original intention was there.

He said using Blackfoot terminology on land that was historically important to the Blackfoot, as in the latest proposal, is more meaningful. But the back story needs to be communicated. 

While all Calgarians get used to a name, it's not until you explore why there's a McKnight Boulevard, a James McKevitt Road or a John Laurie Boulevard that you start to uncover more of what make this city what it is today. 

"These roadways are something that people can grow up with and not even give it a second thought," said Hiller. "But they can also serve as a point of interest that rouses curiosity about where this name came from."

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. It's called Calgary at a Crossroads.


  • An earlier version of this story contained incorrect translations, provided by the city, of the Blackfoot words proposed as street names in the Paskapoo Slopes development.
    Dec 04, 2015 12:14 PM MT