Geographical Names

Place Naming: BC Geographical Names Office

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The BC Geographical Names Office (BCGNO) is responsible for naming geographical features and managing all official place names in the province of British Columbia. As part of Heritage Branch, the BCGNO maintains the list of all past and present official names in British Columbia, which are fundamental to the official base map of British Columbia, and manages name changes of natural features (land forms and waterways). Prior to 1980, these decisions were made at the federal level.

Geographical names are essential for communication and navigation but also represent much more. They reflect the values of communities or decision makers at the times the names were created and continue to influence how we view, understand, interact with, and remember places and their histories.  

British Columbia includes many diverse cultures from Indigenous Nations and settler communities; embracing our diversity through place names helps protect our culture and heritage and gives all British Columbians and our visitors a better awareness of where we live. Learning more about place names and Indigenous place names in your area can deepen your understanding of the history and significance of a place. 

The BCGNO is responsible for naming features such as lakes, rivers, mountains, islands and bays. The jurisdiction of the office also includes unincorporated inhabited areas such as present and past communities or settlements.

Other jurisdictions are responsible for naming highways, bridges and other types of legally defined areas such as municipalities, parks and protected areas. Local and regional governments maintain naming authority over infrastructure within their boundaries such as streets and plazas, and municipal parks (but not the geographical features within those parks).

BC Geographical Names Information System

BC Geographical Names Information System (BCGNIS) is the authoritative database for place names in British Columbia and is the the reference source for all official maps and charts created nationally or internationally. This multi-component system is accessed by approximately three million users per year.

BCGNIS contains the master database of B.C. place names and holds approximately 50,000 current and former B.C. names. Brief notes about provenance and significance accompany approximately 50% of the place name records. All names and location details are searchable on this database. Origin notes are added when available, on an ongoing basis. There are different ways to use the map to make it easier for you to find what you’re looking for.  

To search for a B.C. geographical name:

Launch App: BC Geographical Names

“Name record” is a term used to refer to the official adoption document of a name. For example, when you open up a name by selecting “more information” that action opens the name record. Name records are established by comparing decision records, correspondence, maps, and other relevant documents to the history of a name that led to it being made official. The decisions are made public through the “origin notes” feature of the BCGNO database. Origin notes are updated to reflect the history of a name (they may include its origin, adoption, potential other names used, and more). Some name records even have audio files to help with pronunciation. 

The Gazetteer

The Gazetteer of British Columbia is a listing of all 41,000+ official geographical names in the province, extracted from the BC Geographical Names Information System. For many years Gazetteers were published annually, but now the Gazetteer is regularly updated and its information can be downloaded, used, and shared. Gazetteers can be used to confirm if a name is official, check the spelling, confirm the details of a feature (for example, the mouth of a creek), and more. 

The Gazetteer is downloadable free of charge. 

Download the Gazetteer

Sounds like 

Even if you don’t have the spelling quite right, a search will return name records that are close to, or sound like, what you’ve searched.  

More information 

After searching for a name, the map will be filled with blue pin icons that represent search results. Select a pin, then choose “More Information” to see details of the name (feature type, status, name authority, relative location, tags, pronunciation, latitude-longitude, datum, NTS map, origin notes and history, and sometimes an audio file of how to pronounce the name). 

Pronouncing Indigenous Place Names 

Some Indigenous names on the BCGNO base map have audio clips attached. You can check for audio files and listen to them by opening up “More Information.” 

Example: sḵelhp

Name records without audio files may have pronunciation instructions included in their information. 

Example: T'iitskakuulth

Nearby names 

After selecting a pin, you can select “nearby names” from the information menu. Selecting 5km or 10km will open pins for all the names within that distance you selected.  

Only official names/unofficial  

Names in the BCGNO database are categorized as “official” and “unofficial.” “Official” names are names that have been formally adopted and are consistently labeled on provincial and federal maps of British Columbia. “Unofficial” names are names that not labelled on provincial and federal maps, they may be former names, or recorded names. 

Filter your search by clicking the “official names only” box by the search bar if you want to see official names only 

Ways of searching 

By Place Names (default setting) 

1. In the search bar enter the place name you’re looking for

2. Select the magnifying glass to search  

3. Select “More Options” to narrow your search results. You can limit results by filtering by feature type, naming authority, and tag 

Changes by date 

Changes by date will return results that have had their name record altered within the selected range. This can be useful for seeing recently updated names, as the BCGNO is working hard to make more notes public. 

1. From the drop down menu next to “Search” select “changes by date” 

2. Enter your selected date range 

3. Select the magnifying glass to search 

Recent decisions 

Searching by recent decisions will return any names that have had decisions made in your selected range (e.g. 30 days). For example, name changes.  

Near a point 

Near a point is a tool that will return results based on a specific location within a 5 or 10 kilometer range. You can enter the latitude and longitude, or you can select a point on the map. This is useful to see all the names in an area. 

In the current map area 

In the Current Map Area allows you to select a portion of the map and then see all the names in the area. By zooming in and out you can be more and less specific with your search. For example, if you zoom all the way out and select “search the map now,” over 41,000 results will be returned. You can zoom in on specific areas to bring this number down.  

Tagged names 

Some name records have “tags” attached to them. Tags are added in the database and help group names together by theme. Selecting one of these tags, and pressing search, will make all the place names with that tag appear.

Filtering searches

Searches can also be filtered by Feature Type, Name Authority or Tag. For example you can search in a map area, then click on "more options" in the top menu to open a side tab which presents drop-down menus to choose from.

 

Showcase Maps 

Use interactive maps to explore and discover special groupings of place name records in the BC Geographical Names Information System. ·      

British Columbia is home to 34 Indigenous languages and 90+ dialects; the most linguistically diverse province in Canada. Indigenous Peoples have always named places and Indigenous place names, especially in the original languages of the land, help tell the story and deep history of this place we know today as British Columbia.

Place names reflect the cultural history and heritage values of the province. Learning place names can enable a deeper understanding of the history and significance of a place.

While most B.C. place names in the BCGNIS (and therefore labelled on maps) are in the English language, there are many names in B.C. that have Indigenous origins or roots that have been anglicized, poorly interpreted or applied to something for which the original name was never intended.

Examples of such names are Nanaimo, Kelowna, and Shuswap.

The BCGNO is committed to working respectfully with Indigenous governments and communities to better recognize their geographical names, languages, orthographies, and naming conventions.

See the Showcase Maps section (under 'Using the BCGNIS' heading above) for maps with thematic groupings.

Explore more name records on the BC Geographical Names web app.

 

 Pronunciation Guidance and Indigenous Orthographies

The BCGNIS supports several unique characters and orthographies. To assist with proper pronunciation, some name records feature sound clips and written phonetic pronunciation instructions. Select 'more information' within the web app to access the detailed name record and click on the speaker icon to listen.

  • Click to access record and pronunciation for Gwinmilit
  • Click to access record and pronunciation guide for Hucuktlis Lake

The BCGNO understands and respects the importance of Indigenous writing systems (orthographies), and supports UTF-8 character-encoding to ensure successful data replication across all mapping systems. In the rare event that the BCGNIS is unable to support a special character that is unique to an Indigenous orthography, then the correct spelling will be shown as an image on the name record and an agreed upon 'map label' will be used.

See examples of name records with special characters.

The BC Geographical Names Office (BCGNO), within the Heritage Branch, makes place naming decisions in accordance with the BC Geographical Naming Policy and Procedures. Under the policy, the office initiates an engagement period to request comments from Indigenous and local governments whose territories and boundaries a feature is within, and from organizations impacted by a proposed name (e.g. search and rescue groups).

The information required to make a formal proposal to rescind (remove) or to replace a geographical name is included in the policy document.

The British Columbia Geographical Naming Policy states that proposals for commemorative naming may only be considered after 24 months have elapsed from the date of passing, and only where there is broad demonstrated support of significant contribution by that person to an area. This is in line with policies in other jurisdictions across Canada and is intended to provide time for careful reflection on how best to commemorate the memory of an individual, and to encourage objective consideration and discussion at the local level prior to submission of a formal geographical name proposal.

The Policy also states that the investigation of each proposal will include gathering comments on suitability, existence of a local name, and probable degree of acceptance of the proposed names from a variety of community representation including local First Nations. Community engagement is a cornerstone of the geographical naming process and local, regional and First Nations governments will be invited to comment on the naming proposal.  Once an application is accepted and the name change process is initiated, generally the time required to collect comments takes 10 to 12 months.

As part of every naming process, invitations to comment on the naming proposal are sent to municipalities, regional districts and all Indigenous governments whose territories the feature is in, as well as to regional organizations.

If a place naming decision is made, the name record in the BCGNIS is adjusted (added, changed, rescinded). A robust notification process follows to ensure everyone is aware of the change and official maps are adjusted.

Proposing a Name, Removing a Name, or Changing a Name

Changing a place name consists of several steps. The processes to remove or rescind a place name and adopt a new name are similar, but establishing new names contains extra steps to ensure the new name is best suited for adoption.  All proposals will be shared for comment with respective local and Indigenous governments whose boundaries and territories include the feature, as well as with relevant regional organizations.

1. Name change initiated by member of the public

2. Name change application received by BCGNO and reviewed. 

  • Note: Only complete application packages will be considered. 
  • Names that will likely be considered for changing: removal/rescinding of racist and derogatory names, restoring Indigenous place names, and names that meet standards established in the BC Geographical Naming Policy (the Policy).
  • Names that won’t be considered for adoption: Discriminatory or derogatory names; Company or commercial product names (unless there is long-standing local usage of the name); Commemorative names of living people or within two years of the passing of individual being commemorated; Names that are only in the interest of a single or special group; Names that violate other aspects of the Policy.

3. Engagement with affected groups about how the proposal would impact them and if there are other existing names (for new name proposals). Engagement includes requesting comments from Indigenous governments, local governments, regional organizations, search and rescue, and others. 

4. Comments are evaluated and a decision is reached (approve, defer or reject) to adopt, rescind or re-name the feature. 

5. A robust notification process follows to ensure everyone is aware of any changes, and that official maps are adjusted accordingly.

Submitting a Naming Proposal 

The BCGNO does not initiate any new names or name changes. A proposal to change, add or rescind a geographical name is required before the BCGNO can consider changes. The office accepts hard copy proposals and proposals in electronic formats such as Word documents, PDF and Excel spreadsheets. 

A proposal to change a place name must include the following information: 

  • Contact information for proponent submitting the proposal

  • Proposed Place Name 

  • Current Official Name, if applicable 

  • Type of feature 

  • Geographical coordinates of the feature, such as longitude and latitude at the feature's mid-point, stream mouth, and stream headwaters (as appropriate)

  • Geographical extent of the feature (e.g. 'name applies to the entire mountain' or 'name applies to a specific peak on the mountain')

  • The meaning or significance of the proposed name 

  • Reason for name or name change 

  • Audio recordings that provide guidance on pronunciation

  • Images of the feature 

  • Description of all research undertaken, including letters of support from local governments, Indigenous governments and relevant organizations, including their contact information

Recording Information in the BCGNIS

Recording a name can be a meaningful tool that follows a simplified process than proposing a formal name change. Recorded names are names that have been used historically but are unofficial, therefore not labelled on provincial and federal maps, and do not require community engagement. Recorded names can be important public awareness and educational resources that contain many of the same elements as an official name.

Origin and historical information can also be added to an existing name record, and requires appropriate sourcing.

This section is intended for developers, researchers, programmers and other users, and includes information on data formats and how to extract the data.

For Developers  

The BC Geographical Names Information System includes a web service (the BC Geographical Names Web Service). The web service can be used by third-party application developers to incorporate name searches into other web sites and application. 

Visit the interactive API console that defines the capabilities of the BC Geographical Names Web Service

Using our information 

To cite material from the BCGNIS please follow these standards:

  • Origin Notes that are attributed to BC Place Name Cards: BC Geographical Names Office: BC Geographical Names Information System. [place name]. [link to name record]. [date accessed].  
  • Origin notes that are attributed to external sources (e.g. books, articles, websites) in the name record: Please use the original source attribution information in addition to BCGNIS [place name]. [link to name record]. [date accessed]. 

Downloading the Gazetteer  

The Gazetteer of British Columbia is a listing of all 41,000+ official geographical names in the province, extracted from the BC Geographical Names Information System, the master database of B.C. place names. The Gazetteer is downloadable free of charge. 

Formats available: 

  • BC Geographical Names custom download is a custom downloadable (output format, projection) spatial layer of the BC Gazetteer from the BC Data Catalogue. 
  • BC Gazetteer .csv is a self-extracting Comma Separated Values file that opens as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The file contains 41,000+ rows with the following values: Official Name; Feature Type; Feature Type Code: Mapsheet: Datum: Latitude: Longitude. Size = 3.0 MB 
  • BC Gazetteer .shp is a (compressed) standard ESRI point shapefile in decimal degrees. The file contains 41,000+ points with an accompanying attribute table containing data for each point: Official Name; Feature Type; Feature Type Code; Mapsheet; Datum; Latitude; Longitude. ZipFile Size: 2.5 MB 

The Gazetteer includes two documents:

  • Feature Definitions - a dictionary of the 200+ feature types identified with the province's official names 
  • Feature Type Codes and Categories - a hierarchical listing to help users customize their own subset of the Gazetteer 

Download the Gazetteer documents

 

Launch App: BC Geographical Names

Link to Naming Policy & Procedures