Des Kappel, the provincial toponymist in charge of naming land features, gets some unusual requests.
When Valentine’s Day approaches, young men will call asking how to go about getting a lake named for their girlfriends. He breaks their hearts gently, telling them it doesn’t work that way.
"I could probably do that but at the expense of my principal employment," he jokes.
It also doesn’t work this way. Kappel does not start his day by walking into his cubicle, strapping on a blindfold and tossing a dart at a big provincial map mounted on his office wall. His cluttered office includes many rolled and unrolled topographical maps, but a dart does not determine what’s named next. No, naming lakes and other provincial land features is a complex — and vital — endeavour.
And there is plenty of work to do. There are about 100,000 lakes of any size in Manitoba, according to a provincial survey from the 1970s. About 10,000 have been named to date; so there’s 90,000 to go.
Kappel is making progress. He was part of a team that in 1995 completed the naming of lakes, islands and bays after the more than 4,000 Manitoba casualties from the Second World War. The majority of the land features were northern Manitoba lakes. His current task is to match features with the names of casualties from the First World War.
Kappel doesn’t blame people for being curious about his job. When he started as provincial toponymist — a toponymist is someone who studies place names — in 1994, he had the same reaction people still have today. "I said, ‘Is this really a job? Someone really does this?’"
Kappel also sits on the Geographic Names Board of Canada, established in 1897 to ensure uniform standards. "It was so you didn’t get three Portage la Prairies," he says. But it was also to impose strict standards so the naming process isn’t cheapened. Ottawa had final say on naming until 1961.
Manitoba was represented on the board from the inception, but it wasn’t until 1971 that it created the position of toponymist devoted solely to geographical names. Kappel is Manitoba’s second toponymist. Like Adam, who God tasked with naming all the birds and wild animals, the provincial government has assigned Kappel to name the leftovers: land features.
Why does everything have to have a name? One reason is to assist emergency services.
There was a recent case at Rossman Lake, south of Riding Mountain National Park, where an ambulance went to the wrong address. Fortunately, the emergency ended well. But at the request of the RM of Rossburn council, the lake has been now split into three named areas: Rossman Lake West, Rossman Lake South, and Rossman Lake Sunset Point.
Another reason is to assist the resource sectors, such as mining, logging and building, where landmarks and names are crucial to what they do.
There is also the matter of simply being accurate.
"I’ll get a call from someone who’s caught a Master Angler fish," Kappel says. "It would be good if they could recognize where they caught the fish, instead of saying, ‘I caught it at the lake that’s two miles north of Smith Falls.’"
Some map names, such as Portage la Prairie, romanticize the fur trade. Some names represent the nationality of an immigrating community, such as Selkirk or Brandon, Steinbach or Schanzenfeld, Gimli or Baldur, Zhoda or Prawda, and St. Pierre-Jolys or Letellier. Other names reflect the province’s indigenous roots, such as Waywayseecappo or Manigotagan. They are all historically instructive.
There are about 16,200 named features in the provincial database, from cities and towns to lowly landforms such as Young Hill, north of Flin Flon, commemoratively named for a fallen soldier. The provincial cartographer can’t put every name on the road map in your vehicle’s glove compartment or it would become unreadable. So only the most prominent names wind up on the public maps.
Obviously, major places were named before Kappel started his job. Most land features crossed by a road or railway had already been christened. But when asked if he’s ever named anything people would recognize, Kappel mentions Patricia Beach.
Hold on a sec, Des. I hate to be the one to tell you, but Patricia Beach was named Patricia Beach long before you were born.
Not exactly, he responds. There has been a Patricia Beach Provincial Park, on the southeast tip of Lake Winnipeg. But there’s never been an official place name recorded as Patricia Beach in the province’s databank.
A request was made by someone familiar with the local heritage to ensure the historic knowledge wasn’t lost. Place names are significant historic markers, after all. The request was supported by local residents and elected officials, which is usually required.
Patricia Beach has been used both publicly and privately for recreation since 1925, when George Allen built a private hunting lodge at the site. Over time, the area developed into a popular public retreat. It was absorbed by the provincial park, and named after George and Olive Allen’s daughter, Patricia.
The fact that residents and local government had referred for a long time to the former hunting lodge site as Patricia Beach was good enough to warrant an official naming. If Manitoba’s highways department chooses to erect a road sign marking Patricia Beach, it would be at the site of the former hunting lodge.
However, Patricia Beach doesn’t indicate a population cluster. It’s officially called a "locality," which is defined as "a named place or area, with or without a scattered population." In other words, a catch-all term for just about anywhere that local people have given a name. After all, the name Birds Hill started the same way. Everyone referred to it as Bird’s hill, in the possessive form, because a Bird family lived there.
There are many "localities" across the province with a name. Harperville, a cluster of two or three residences according to a blurry Google Earth image, has nothing to do with former prime minister Stephen Harper. Nor does it stand for a community of avid Harper supporters. Rather, Harperville was named in 1906 after the local postmaster, Peter Harper, who settled in the area but later moved to Stonewall. Yet Harperville warrants a road sign on Highway 6 as a locality.
Same with Monominto, just off Highway 15 east of Winnipeg. Using Google Earth, there looks to be maybe one or two buildings at Monominto, yet it gets its own highway sign, too. It’s termed a "railway point" and is a siding on the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway that services the aqueduct carrying drinking water to Winnipeg from Shoal Lake, on the Manitoba-Ontario border.
It was named Monominto after the Fourth Earl of Minto, Sir Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound. He was Canada’s governor general from 1898 to 1904 and "Mono" was his daughter’s nickname. There were already enough things named after Minto — the town of Minto south of Brandon, and Minto Street and Minto Armoury in Winnipeg — so the "locality" was named Monominto.
Near Monominto is another green provincial road sign for Nourse. A former Icelandic settlement perhaps? No, it’s another former railway point with a siding for CN Rail trains to pull over. A named railway point typically indicated a section of track. The Nourse point was named in 1928 after C.K.G. Nourse, the general manager of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Winnipeg.
Even though the easily accessed land features have been named, that still leaves vast numbers of remote features anonymous. There are 12 land features that come up for naming in the province’s commemorative naming program: lakes, rivers, islands, bays, points, peninsulas, rapids, creeks, hills, narrows, eskers and waterfalls. Kappel says here are at least half a million such features still unnamed.
Kappel estimates he names seven to 15 geographic features annually. Extra staff were brought in to speed up the commemorative naming of Second World War casualties, and 2,000 features were named in one year. Each feature has to be researched to ensure there isn’t a local name or local history that should take priority.
The commemorative project was about more than just naming. The province also asked for photographs, biographical information and any other documentation from families who suffered war casualties. These are included in a database. Kappel communicated with many of the families during the process.
"Some people are still very emotional. Even after 50 years, some families will talk about their family member and still shed tears," he says.
"For some people, (the commemorative naming) is closure because the person died overseas, or right in the sea, and are buried overseas, if formally buried at all. We have families go up to the commemorative lakes and build cairns or put down plaques." And some family members request that their ashes be spread on the lake that bears the name of their loved one.
In 2005, the province published in a softcover book information about the fallen soldiers. It’s now out of print but the province has the book available on compact disc at Canada Map Sales.
The compilation of people’s stories brings home the insanity of war. It includes names, photos, biographies, the geographical features commemorated in their name, and very personal information, such as their letters home.
Take the example of Pte. Ralph Aandal of St. Vital. "I had a nice trip out here. We rode on the train for quite a ways. Then we got off and rode on camel for miles and miles." He was joking. He had arrived in the Carberry desert to train at the nearby Shilo military base.
He moved to Debert, N.S., for additional training before arriving in Britain where, he wrote, he had "quite a bit of fun... I saw all the big art galleries and the wax museum." He also complained about the European cigarettes and asked his parents to send him Players Mild.
His last letter was postmarked the day he died: "We are still on the German border," he wrote. "I haven’t been sick at all out here. It’s funny we all haven’t gone to the hospital. We are laying in water day and night... Love Ralph (14 December, 1944)."
That’s just the first name in the commemorative edition. Aandel Lake, northeast of Reindeer Lake in northern Manitoba, is named after him.
"Since we have not a gravesite here in Manitoba, (Aandal Lake) is so very meaningful to us, his family," his sister wrote in the book.
There are more than 4,000 stories like that.
Lt. Sidney A. Armstrong Adams, from The Pas, obtained his bachelor of architecture degree from University of Manitoba in May 1942. Three months later he was in the army. He was killed by mortar fire June 17, 1944, at the age of 25, and is buried in Calvados, France. Sidney Adams Bay in Dafoe Lake is named for him.
Another commemorative name is Wilkie Lake, in honour of Nursing Sister Agnes W. Wilkie of Carman. On Oct. 14, 1942, Wilkie, aged 30, was aboard the SS Caribou, a transport ship, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine U-69.
The ship went down in four minutes, and Wilkie and friend, Margaret Brooke, a dietician, were sucked down into the water with the ship. "I thought we would never come up but we did eventually," Brooke later told authorities.
They clung to the ropes of an overturned lifeboat in the icy waters. About 10 people where hanging on, draping themselves over parts of the overturned vessel. Giant waves kept crashing over the lifeboat and sweeping them away. They struggled to get back. At one point, Sister Wilkie lost consciousness and let go. Brooke pulled her back. Another wave crashed over them and Wilkie went with it again. This time she didn’t get back. When a minesweeper found them at daybreak, only three people were still with the lifeboat.
The stories continue.
"No, I’m not going to marry any of these girls over here," one soldier wrote home. "I’m going to marry a good-looking Canadian gal even if I have to wait ten years. The girls over here and me don’t get along after the first few hours."
In fact, Francis J. Elms of St. James didn’t marry anyone. That was his last letter home. He was 21. Elms Lake is on a peninsula in Nueltin Lake on Manitoba’s northern border.
In the biographies, families were asked to name something the deceased loved to do most. Their passions ranged from the outdoors to sports, from painting in watercolours to dancing Strauss waltzes, to practical jokes to "teasing his sisters," as was the case of Trooper Cecil E. Switzer of Fisher Branch, who died at age 23. Switzer Lake, south of Caribou River, is named after him.
Many loved the arts and could play multiple instruments, such as Gunner Ernest L. Hugill, of Durban in southwestern Manitoba. He played violin, banjo and guitar before the age of 22. Hugill Creek, northeast of MacMillan Lake, is named for him.
One family received a letter from their son announcing his engagement "to a lovely English girl." But the next communication the family received was a telegram informing them Pilot Officer Colin I. Jakeman of Roblin was "Missing in Action." He was only 21. Jakeman Lake, east of Big Sand Lake, is named for him.
Trooper Steve Michlosky, who grew up on a farm southeast of Lake Winnipeg, died at age 21. He wrote many letters home to family and friends. In one he wrote: "I feel miserable and down for some reason. There is a girl in Portage la Prairie who writes me often, about every three days. I guess I told you about her when I was back in Canada. She’s beautiful and good and she’s in love with me very much... I honestly don’t know how I’ll ever repay her for all her kindness and loyalty to a Soldier who is not worth any of it." Michlosky Lake, northeast of Lac Brochet, is named for him.
"The commemoration of these men and women through the naming of geographical features is more than a polite gesture to their families," Anthony Buckner, an archaeologist who worked on the province’s naming project at the time, wrote in the book’s forward.
For example, the sister of Frank Foord, missing in action, wrote that "with no known grave he has always just been ‘Missing in Hong Kong.’ Now with a spot at last in Canada in his name, he will finally have a resting place."
Others wrote that the commemorative naming brought closure to the family. One family noted that they only knew their son had perished in the North Sea and his body was never recovered.
That was the case with airmen such as brothers Robert and Ward Coulson, two of three sons of Willard and Helen Coulson who were killed in action.
"Bob never came back," Judith Rannard, his niece, said in an interview. "Bob was shot down over the Mediterranean area." The fraternal twins he and wife Phyllis had before his going overseas would grow up without a father.
Robert is commemorated at the Malta Memorial in Malta, south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, a memorial monument dedicated to Commonwealth airmen with no known grave. Ward was shot down over Hong Kong. He was survived by his wife, Catherine, and they lived in Norwood. Ward is commemorated at the Singapore Memorial.
The lake commemoration was a moving dedication for the family, Rannard says, many of whom have since passed away, including Robert’s twins.
"I think people have to realize these were real human beings, brothers-sisters, husbands-wives, sons-daughters, fathers-mothers. They were real people and they are gone. Their families gave up a lot," Rannard says.
As well, there are 22 Victoria Cross recipients honoured, about half of whom were killed in war. Others commemorated include 37 casualties from the Korean War, seven from the Afghanistan War and one UN peacekeeper. The province has recently begun naming land features for slain police officers and other first responders who died in the line of duty.
Among those is Dennis Strongquill, an RCMP constable gunned down during a traffic stop near Russell in 2001. Strongquill Lake is 45 kilometres north of Flin Flon.
Not just any size lake qualifies.
"They should be large enough that at least a float plane could land (about 1.6 kilometres across) and not just watering holes for some muskrats," Kappel says. After all, most of these lakes can only be reached by plane.
Landforms are matched with the deceased randomly. So a general doesn’t get a bigger lake than a private. And if he does, it’s a coincidence.
Kappel is now trying to honour the First World War casualties. When the project started about a year ago, the province had a list of about 1,500 casualties in its archives. It was estimated the project might take five years.
However, the province knew the casualty list was incomplete. The federal government keeps a registry of those killed in the First World War but it doesn’t say where they are from in Canada. Kappel put out the call for families who lost a loved one in the Great War to contact the province. About 100 responded.
Then Darryl R. Toews, a school teacher in Morden and a volunteer with the Manitoba Historical Society, got on the case. Toews researched war monuments across the province, as well as newspaper archives, and came up with nearly 7,000 more names. The data bank for Manitobans killed in the First World War now tallies about 8,200.
"I just felt this need to get this list made so we can understand what the sacrifice was from people in Manitoba," Toews says.
That’s a lot of commemorative names. They also date back another generation compared to the Second World War, so information is harder to obtain. There is no timeline to complete the project.
"It’s kind of open-ended," Kappel says.
Another common call to the province’s toponymy office is from a family that has a cottage on an island, creek or small lake or has some other feature on their property. They’re calling because they want to name the feature after themselves.
Uh-huh, Kappel will say, listening. Uh-uh, he will reply in the end.
First of all, ownership isn’t a factor in naming. Toponymy doesn’t care whether something is on your property or not.
Secondly, you have to be dead to have something named after you. Most people aren’t willing to make the sacrifice. If the family’s ancestors were prominent in some historic way at that location, like the original settlers, then a request will be considered.
A rare exception was made when then-premier Greg Selinger leap-frogged the process and named a northern lake after Jonathan Toews, the very much alive star of the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League.
The Winnipegger had just won an Olympic gold with Team Canada’s hockey team in 2010, then captained the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup, for which he was named the most valuable player.
The city planned to fete Toews with various honours, including a parade and the naming of Dakota Community Centre’s hockey rink the Jonathan Toews Sportsplex. Selinger, meanwhile, decided the province would name a lake after Toews, who was 22 at the time. Toews Lake is 120 kilometres north of Flin Flon.
A small uproar ensued, with claims that Toews was jumping the queue ahead of Afghanistan war casualties and first responders who lost their lives in the line of duty.
Kappel doesn’t want to get into the politics behind the naming but acknowledges virtually all commemorative naming is done posthumously, not just in Manitoba but across Canada.
Kappel adds the optics were bad. The province was in the process of naming lakes commemorating Afghanistan soldiers but was saving the announcement for Remembrance Day. "We should have got in touch with those families prior to the Toews announcement," he says.
That said, he believes Toews was not a bad choice if an exception was made. Toews is a tremendous ambassador for Manitoba, and is heavily involved in charity work, including his Jonathan Toews Foundation. Last year, he donated $1 million to the Dakota Community Centre.
Have there been any other exceptions in Canada of naming land features after a living person?
"That’s the only one I’m aware of," Kappel says. "I still get teased about that by the other provinces when we get together."