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An Over-Simplified Plaque, Origin of Manitoba

by C. V.

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1970, Volume 15, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Winnipeg Free Press Editorial, 13 August 1957

The unveiling on Sunday of a plaque marking the Narrows on Lake Manitoba as "the place of origin and first historic use of the name of the province of Manitoba" is a move in the right direction. One hopes that the Historic Sites Advisory Board will erect many such markers, each re-calling for all who travel some important page from Manitoba's history.

The wording of the plaque, however, is far from satisfactory. It is more than doubtful whether the origin of the place-name Manitoba can be traced exclusively, as the plaque suggests, to the Ojibway words "manitou" and "bau," meaning strait of the spirit. The place-name existed before the Ojibways arrived in Manitoba. There were few, if any, Ojibways west of the Red River before the last decade of the 18th century, certainly none at the Narrows when the place-name Lake Manitoba first appeared on maps of the West.

If the Board wants an Algonkin origin for the word Manitoba why not pick the Cree "manitou-wapow?" Its meaning is the same, and the Crees lived in northeastern Manitoba for centuries before the first Ojibways came west from their Great Lakes homeland.

The wording of the plaque also rules out the possibility of the word Manitoba having a Siouan-Assiniboine origin. When La Verendrye discovered the lake he named it Lake of the Prairies from the Assiniboine words "mini" and "tobow," words that are correctly translated in La Verendrye's phrase. This was the lake's first name in any European language, and it continued to be used, with minor variations, during the period of French ascendancy in the west.

Thoughtful historians will not ignore this meaning now, for Lake Manitoba was in every sense of the word an Assiniboine lake, it was in the heart of their homeland, and they travelled its waters to reach Hudson Bay after the arrival of the English traders. The Assiniboines apparently were not impressed with the Narrows as a home of the Manitou, but they did recognize the lake as an important part of their Manitoba domain long years before the first Ojibway arrived.

There is evidence that the place-name Manitoba was used at least 12 years before the date recorded on the plaque. On one of Peter Pond's maps of 1785 Lake Manitoba appears as "Lake Minnitopa," on another as "Lake Minnetopar."

It should be noted that Pond's names stem directly out of the Assiniboine words "mini" and "tobow," and we know where he gathered the data. During the winter of 1775-76, before the Ojibways had reached Manitoba, he was trading at the northwest corner of Lake Dauphin. And H. A. Innis states that Pond went to Lake Dauphin "to trade with the Assiniboine with whose language and customs he had become acquainted among the Yanktons on the Mississippi."

Under various spellings Lake Manitoba appears on a number of late 18th century maps. Indeed, in 1796 the modern spelling "Lake Manitoba" makes a sudden and unexplained appearance on Arrowsmith's map, only to be abandoned promptly for about 75 years. All this destroys the plaque's claim that: "In 1797 the Hudson's Bay Company built ... their 'Doubtful Post' at `Manitobar,' the first recorded use of the name."

There are indications that the Board will change the plaque. This is welcome news and the change should be made forthwith. The origin of the word Manitoba may remain a mystery; it could even have a split origin; but that is no excuse for ruling in favor of one tradition, to the exclusion of others, without strong supporting evidence. If that evidence exists it has not been made public.

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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