Renaming Canada Turtle Island only benefits Indigenous elites and their non-Indigenous sycophants

By Hymie Rubenstein
and Rodney Clifton

Changing a country’s name never raised an eyebrow when it involved third-world colonies transitioning to sovereignty, as occurred when many in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere did so after the Second World War. However, such transformations have been virtually non-existent for first-world nations.

This makes it strange that there hasn’t been any public concern about the bizarre and increasingly formalized renaming of Canada to “Turtle Island.”

Turtle Island is what many Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples have long called the entire continent of North America because, in various Indigenous origin stories, a turtle, surrounded by water, is said to support the world.

Hymie Rubenstein

Hymie Rubenstein

Rodney Clifton

Rodney Clifton

Turtle island canada

Photo by Jakob Owens

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A few decades ago, Turtle Island was occasionally used by Indigenous activists and their supporters. Today, this name has gained traction without causing critical reaction from any source.


Because Canadians have been led to believe that using Turtle Island is necessary for national reconciliation with Indigenous people, resulting in its formal use by universities, churches, and governments across the country. For example:

  • In 2022, the University of Manitoba used this name for its first Indigenous Science Conference focusing on Indigenous approaches to understanding the five basic elements – fire, water, earth, air, and spirit – found among many Aboriginal peoples;
  • The Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land is supporting a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous parishioners that set out to develop a truly Indigenous Christianity called “the Gospel of and for Turtle Island”;
  • The Toronto Zoo has created the Turtle Island Conservation Program;
  • Nationwide, many school boards have begun using curricula that teach students about Turtle Island;
  • A new atlas, the Indigenous Atlas of Canada, uses Turtle Island in the text and on the maps but not in the title of the atlas;
  • McGill University has recently partnered with the CBC to create a program called “Turtle Island Reads,” which broadcasts stories about Indigenous people by Indigenous people and,
  • The Canadian government has a program called “Turtle Island Staffing” for several departments, including National Defense, Health Canada, and the RCMP, which began in 2017 and has increased its funding by 84 percent over the last five years.

This renaming is peculiar because “turtle” has Portuguese and Spanish origins, while “island” traces back to Middle English.

Conversely, the name Canada comes from the word “Kanata” in the Iroquoian language, meaning “settlement” or “village.” It is an authentic Indigenous word.

Place names such as Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Kamloops, Inuvik, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan are among the thousands of other names also borrowed from Indigenous languages.

Thus, by referring to Canada as “Turtle Island,” we are replacing a long-standing Indigenous word with a non-Indigenous two-word name. How could changing from an Indigenous name to a Portuguese/English term ever foster reconciliation? And who ordained that Turtle Island should be considered the new name for Canada?

The answer to both questions is that the new name empowers Indigenous activists over other Canadians who think the old name, Canada, is just fine. Indeed, most Canadians are probably unaware of, even indifferent to, the Indigenous roots of the “Canada” appellation.

If ordinary Canadians and grassroots Indigenous people begin to question this unjustified and costly effort, they may eventually say, “Enough is enough. We want reconciliation, but we will not meet the demand for tens of millions of dollars in compensation to change the names of our country, towns, streets, roads, rivers, and lakes that will not make our lives better or bring us closer together as Canadians.”

Conversely, if the professional activists keep pushing these name changes, they will further polarize Canadian citizens into Indigenous vs. non-Indigenous support groups. This process will not end well, especially for ordinary Indigenous people. When countries collapse, as our country indeed could, it is the poor and marginalized – Indigenous groups particularly – who will suffer the most.

It is time to put our resources back into building a united and prosperous Canada. This nation must benefit all its citizens, not just a handful of “Turtle Island” Indigenous elites and their non-Indigenous sycophants.

Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba and the editor of REAL Indigenous Report. Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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