Work to rename Great Slave Lake ‘well under way’

Last modified: May 28, 2022 at 10:02am


Great Slave Lake. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The Mackenzie Mountains. The names of many NWT locations are relics of colonization. Work is under way to change that. 

Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, told the legislature on Friday it’s well past time that the territorial government renamed places to better reflect the North’s history and culture.

He suggested starting with Great Slave Lake, a name usually traced to a Cree word referring to Dene people as slaves. 

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“It’s 2022. I don’t know why we still have a name that honours the history of slavery between warring nations long ago that was essentially picked by European explorers,” he said. 

“I love that lake, it is a great lake, but its name does not do it justice.” 

Johnson pointed out there are multiple Indigenous names for the lake and there have long been concerns about continued use of the terms “slave” and “slavey” in the NWT. 

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson in the NWT Legislative Assembly on May 27, 2022.

Culture minister RJ Simpson said the territorial government had received a request to change the lake’s name and work was “well under way” to consult communities and Indigenous governments.

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Simpson explained the territory’s policy on geographical and community names requires communities to request name changes. The NWT government will then work with the Geographic Name Board of Canada – which recently called for more Inuit and Métis advisors – on public consultations.

Simpson said his department was currently working on making more than 400 Indigenous names official for geographic features across the NWT. 

“There is a lot of work happening on this front right now,” he said.

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A prince and two Mackenzies

Johnson questioned whether the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (named for Prince Charles), the Mackenzie River (named for Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie) and the Mackenzie Mountains (honouring Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie) would also be renamed. 

Johnson said he doesn’t believe Prince Charles – who he called “old Chucky boy” – has a strong connection to the North. The Prince of Wales has twice visited the museum, once in 1979 when it first opened and earlier this month during a royal tour to commemorate the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Johnson said explorer Mackenzie’s claim to the Mackenzie River, meanwhile, was travelling for three months until he realized it did not lead to the Pacific Ocean, then returning home.

Charles and Camilla enter the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
Charles and Camilla enter the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

“Alexander Mackenzie did some good cartography work but honestly, in the realm of explorers, he does not deserve the great Dehcho river,” Johnson said.

The former prime minister Mackenzie, Johnson continued, was known for implementing the Indian Act and his efforts to assimilate Indigenous people. Johnson pointed out the Mackenzie Mountains were not part of Canada when Mackenzie was in office and there is no evidence he ever stepped foot there.

“I don’t believe that in this day and age we have any reason to honour him by naming the beautiful Mackenzie mountains after him,” he said. 

Simpson said any changes to the name of the museum in Yellowknife would have to be tied to changes to the building, like retrofits or renovations. Earlier this year, the minister said the museum is ageing and needs a major overhaul.

“I foresee that in the not-too-distant future we’ll likely be having this conversation about the name, once these other elements start rolling,” he said. 

Minister RJ Simpson in the Legislative Assembly on May 27, 2022.

The Mackenzie River, Simpson said, has multiple official names, including five Indigenous names. Alongside Dehcho – meaning big river in Dene Zhatıé – the river is known as Kuukpak in Inuvialuktun, Nagwichoonjik in Gwich’in, Deho in Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı, and Grande Rivière in Michif. 

As for the Mackenzie Mountains, Simpson said the territory had not received a request to change the name. 

“We can’t do everything at once, so we are not in the process of actively pursuing community support for changing names, because it has to come from the community,” he said.