Place names or toponyms are more than just labels: they often provide valuable information about the landscape and settlement history of an area, and about the way in which people perceived that land. The First Nations who roamed the plains and the wooded north assigned names to the landmarks they encountered, many of which survive today. The name of the province itself comes from kisiskâciwani-sîpiy, “swift flowing river,” which was what the Cree called both branches of the Saskatchewan River. Waskesiu is a somewhat shortened version of wâwâskêsiw-sâkahikan, “red deer (or elk) lake.” The Wathaman River, in the far north, comes from the Woods Cree othaman, meaning “vermilion,” because the river’s banks were a source of red dyes for the Indians.
Many more First Nations names exist in translation, including Gull Lake, Birch Hills, Meadow Lake, and Buffalo Narrows. Most famous among these is undoubtedly Qu’Appelle, which originated with a Cree legend about a spirit that travelled up and down the valley calling out people’s names; their response was “kâ-têpwêt?” meaning “Who calls?” which was translated by early French-speaking travellers as “Qui appelle?” and is well known today in the abbreviated form of Qu’Appelle.
Whereas First Nations place names were inspired by the natural surroundings and their connections, the arrival of Europeans provided varied additions. The oldest European name still in use today in Saskatchewan is Fort à la Corne, which bears the name of Louis Chapt, Chevalier de la Corne, brother-in-law to the La Vérendrye brothers, who founded that trading post in the Saskatchewan valley in 1753. This practice of naming places after people, both the famous and the locally prominent, continues to the present. The Europeans also introduced the concept of commemorating their former homes (e.g., Bangor, Stockholm), with the result that the map of Saskatchewan is dotted with names from virtually every country in northern Europe, as well as from eastern Canada and the United States.
Official responsibility for Saskatchewan place names rested with the Canada Permanent Committee on Geographical Names at Ottawa through the 1950s and beyond. Gradually, though, the province began to exert control. Abram Bereskin became Controller of Surveys for the Department of Natural Resources in 1946, and was given responsibility for the place names file. It was Bereskin who oversaw the bulk of the geo-memorial project of naming features for the almost 4,000 Saskatchewan servicemen who died during World War II. In association with the province’s Golden Jubilee in 1955, there was also a flurry of naming features after pioneer families. In all, it was a remarkable period with over 5,000 official names being added to the Saskatchewan map prior to Bereskin’s retirement in 1968. At the same time, political interference was the order of the day and too many names were submitted, or vetoed, for partisan reasons. An unconscionable number of features were named for men (and they were invariably men) whose major contribution to the province was to have served the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for twenty or more years. Bereskin also had a weakness for Dominion Land Surveyors (DLS), whether or not their work had any impact on Saskatchewan. The first legislation on the topic was the Geographic Names Board Act of 1974, and since 1976 the Board has taken responsibility for names in the province. Activity has slowed down dramatically, but is also more measured and consistent with national and international standards.
The first significant effort at recording the origins of the province’s place names was What’s in a Name, a project launched by E.T. (Pete) Russell, principal of Henry Kelsey school at Saskatoon. Under Russell’s guidance, students corresponded with people in every corner of Saskatchewan and collected stories on the origins of place names; the resulting book went through three editions and many reprints, illustrating the enduring popularity of the topic. While What’s in a Name helped to preserve an array of information that might otherwise have been lost, it was not supported by research and much of the information in the book can best be regarded as folklore. In the 1990s, Bill Barry began a more systematic look at the historical record. People Places: Saskatchewan and Its Names (1997) provided the first comprehensive look at the topic, and has prompted considerable further research. The historical background to these names is now much better understood, but huge gaps in our knowledge still remain.