How Manitoba Got Its Name

by H. Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, April 1956

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Have you ever wondered where the name "Manitoba" comes from? We know for certain about many of the names of our cities and towns. For instance, we know that Gladstone was named after William Ewart Gladstone, who was a Prime Minister of England. We know that Churchill was named after an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill and that Selkirk was named after Lord Selkirk who sent the first settlers to Red River. Many names, however, are not as easy as that. We are not sure where the name "Manitoba" came from and people have been discussing and arguing about it for years.

Some people say it is a Cree or Ojibway Indian word. Can you find a place called The Narrows on a map of Manitoba? It is the narrowest stretch of water between the northern and southern parts of Lake Manitoba. Near The Narrows are two little islands which for years and years were called "Manito"and "Wapow" by the Indians. The sound made by the waves beating on the shores of these islands and on the rocks led the Indians to believe that a "manito" or spirit was beating a drum. Many of the Indians when they were passing near the islands would throw a piece of tobacco into the water as a gift to the spirit that lived there, and some of them, it is said, would not go near the islands at night. Now "wapow" is an Indian word for the strait or the body of water between the islands and the shore. When the Cree Indians spoke of the strait they put the two words together and got "manito-wapow" or "the strait where the spirit lives." The Ojibway Indians said "manito-bau." The Indians never wrote this down so that fur traders and explorers could see it but to them it sounded like Manitobah, or Manitoba, and when our Province entered Confederation in 1870 it was decided that the name should be Manitoba. In the House of Commons at Ottawa one speaker said that the name of the new Province meant "the God that speaks."

Many people didn't agree that Manitoba came from a Cree or Ojibway word. They said that the word came from the Assiniboine Indian words "mini" and "toba" meaning "lake of the prairies", which is the name La Verendrye used when he explored western Canada.

Page revised: 13 June 2009