Indigenous place names poised to return to the map of northern Ontario

A very old name will return to the Sudbury landscape this weekend. A billboard overlooking Ramsey Lake will be unveiled displaying the Anishinaabemowin word for the lake. This isn't the only place in the north where Indigenous names are getting back on the map.

Bitimagamasing, the original name for Ramsey Lake, means 'water that lies beside the hill'

Local Anishinaabe activist Bruce McComber and Katimavik participants Shae Perkins and William Fayant are helping to build a billboard over Sudbury's Ramsey Lake displaying the traditional name Bitimagamasing. (Erik White/CBC)

The name won't be back on the map, but it will be a kind of giant label on the landscape.

Perched on a hill overlooking what has been called Ramsey Lake in Sudbury for over a century now, a billboard to be unveiled this Saturday, will display the original Anishnaabemowin word for the lake.

Bitimagamasing means "the water that lies beside the hill."

"Getting people to talk about what this place was called before it was called Sudbury, what this lake was called before it was called Ramsey," says local Indigenous activist Bruce McComber.

He helped put up the billboard with volunteers from the Katimavik national youth program, who are currently based in Sudbury.

"To realize that the Indigenous language and people have been here before the French and English and hoping we can all come together and talk about this," says William Fayant, originally from Regina.

"Being able to take part in active reconciliation efforts in the places that we've lived in has been a truly enriching experience," says Shae Perkins, originally from Gabriola Island, B.C.

The view of Sudbury's Ramsey Lake from a new billboard that will soon be displaying its original Anishinaabemowin name Bitimagamasing. (Erik White/CBC )

McComber says the billboard was built thanks to a donation from businessman Dario Zulich, who recently painted over graffiti on the Pearl Street water tower he owns, that displayed the Indigenous slang word "Skoden."

There's now been some preliminary talk of including N'Swakomok, the old Anishnaabemowin term for the area where Sudbury stands now, when the tower is repainted.

McComber says he hopes the billboard starts a conversation that leads to more traditional names returning to the map of northern Ontario.

"My personal opinion that 95 per cent of places should go back to whatever their original name was. Don't think that's quite realistic," he says.

McComber wonders if there's a way to hyphenate names, such as "Lake Ramsey-Bitimagamasing."

"So that post-colonial and pre-colonial names can be observed," he adds.

Dean Sayers is the chief of Batchewana First Nation. (Erik White/CBC )

For people on the Batchewana First Nation, the name for Sault Ste. Marie has already switched back.

"We refer to it all the time as Bawating," says Chief Dean Sayers.

It's the original Anishinaabemowin word for the traditional gathering place at the rapids on the St. Mary's River, which like the Sault, refers to both sides of the river and the today, the border.

"We would love to have it revert back to the original names," Sayers says.

"It would take some time. We've been conditioned to think a certain way."

Sayers says there is a list of names he'd like to see back on the map, including Gichigami, the Batchewana name for Lake Superior, meaning "the kind lake."

But for him switching the Sault for "Bawating" is the priority. 

"I don't foresee the name of the city changing," says Sault Ste. Marie mayor Christian Provenzano.

But he says he does regularly refer to Bawating as the traditional name for the area in his role as the mayor and he'd like to see it recognized in other more official ways as well.

Provenzano says these could be challenging conversations for people in the Sault and their Anishinaabe neighbours, but he looks forward to them.

"If a conversation's uncomfortable, I don't think that's any reason not to have it," he says.

A water taxi travels on the Moose River, or the Mooso Sibi as it is labelled on a new map using only traditional Cree names drawn up by the Moose Cree First Nation. (Erik White/CBC )

Moose Cree First Nation has literally put traditional Cree place names on a map by drawing a new map.

It's part of the agreement with Ontario Power Generation for the Mattagami hydro dam project.

After several years of research, the map and an accompanying book is set to be released next year with 500 Cree names for places in the Moose River watershed, which on the map is called the Mooso Sibi.

"One day it would be nice to look at a map and all we see are Cree place names. And people are going to be scrambling, looking for the English names," says Jennifer Simard, environmental lead for Moose Cree at its Kapuskasing office.

The name on the map that surprised Simard the most is for a lake north of Kapuskasing that she always called Guilfoyle Lake, but learned that some people (including her parents) once called it Washegum, meaning clear water, while others called it Mahihkamek lake, referring to wolves in the area.

"So it's really stood out for me and learning my own home." 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca