Common Canadian Surnames: Family History Thru Family Names

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Are you interested in your family history? If you are, your surname is a great place to start your research into who you are and where you come from. It’s not just a word, it’s a part of your identity – even a common surname can have a lot of history attached to it!

Canada is a large country with a vast landscape and a ton of names of English origin, but it’s also a mish-mash of different cultures. If you are looking into your Canadian ancestry then check out this quick guide to the meaning behind the most prevalent Canadian last names!

Canadian Names And Their Conventions

Canada’s names follow the same general structure that the rest of the West follows. Names are understood to be composed of a first name, a middle name, and a surname. However, the conventions of Canadian names have some nuance that changes depending on where you are in Canada. 

Canada has a rich and complicated history which created a country with several different entities to be represented. Canada is composed of the English-speaking provinces, the French-speaking province of Quebec, and the original inhabitants of the Americas – in Canada, they are called the First Nations. 

Despite that complexity, most Canadians have standardized into the Western naming convention, with a few exceptions. Even Quebec and many First Nations have elected to keep to the first name + family name structure.

Canadian Surnames of British Origin

Canada was a colony of Great Britain, so many common Canadian surnames are of English origin. But names of Scottish and Irish origin are also some of the most common surnames in English-Speaking Canada.

Last Names of English origin date back to the Norman conquest in 1066. Initially, they changed and were dropped at will, but they eventually started to firm up once people started to find them useful and they gained popularity.

Last names of English origin are often derived from occupations. Someone with the surname Smith would have worked at a smithy, a Miller would have worked at a mill, a Forester would have taken care of a forest. If you dig into your surname, you might find out what work your forebears performed in their small towns. 

Many common surnames of British origin are patronymics or come from paternal forefathers. Names of English origin like Johnson, Richardson, or Robertson are all patronymics. So are Scottish and Irish names like O’Grady or MacAllister which roughly translate to “son of Grady” and “son of Allister.”

If you have a British or Scottish surname, you are probably a descendant of the first waves of English and Scottish settlers and fur trappers that came to Canada. Your Canadian roots could go all the way back to colonial times!

How Waves Of Colonialism Affect Canadian Surnames

Canada is unique because it has sustained more than one major European influence on it. And despite being a Crown Colony, part of Canada is still influenced by its other colonizer, France. The US has lost most of its Francophone culture; Canada, on the other hand, has kept its French influence – this mainly affects the surnames of the people who live in Quebec.

If your surname is French-Canadian, congratulations! You come from a small population of French origin that settled in Canada in the 17th century. Surnames of French origin are similar to surnames of English origin in that they too can be derived from occupations. For example, the surname Broussard means armorer or Cloutier means “nailer” or someone who sold nails.

Patronymics are also common for people of French ancestry. Thomas and Richard are names of French origin that both mean that, somewhere along the genealogy line, there was a prominent person with that name – and it stuck.

Some French last names are also derived from nicknames, like Bouchard which means “big mouth” or Gagnon which means “guard dog” or “aggressive person.” These names probably get their origins from an ancestor who talked a lot or who was unusually protective.

French last names can derive their origins from occupation or location as well. For example, the surname “Poirot” could mean either a pear merchant or someone who lived near a pear tree.

How Waves Of Immigration Affect Canadian Surnames

Much like the United States, Canada is a diverse nation subject to waves of immigration and this has changed last names immensely. If you have an anglicized surname from another country, you can find out more about your ancestry on a website like ancestry.com

Many people have come to Canada seeking better opportunities. If your parents or grandparents migrated from somewhere else, your surname is the ideal place to start learning about what they went through and where they come from. 

Top last names in Canada include “Lee” which could be from China, Korea, or Great Britain. So even if you think you know your family history, there is a ton to discover about your origins if you start digging into your surname.

First Nations’ Names

Most first nation Canadians have adopted Canadian last names. Some have even translated their ancestral name into its anglicized form. For example, Born With A Tooth or Whiteknife. 

Other First Nations have kept their names and only anglicized the spelling, which is how you get names like Tootoosis and Abenaki. If you have names like this, you might have relatives linked to the First Nations of Canada.

Common Canadian Last Names

Canada is a diverse place with hundreds of thousands of surnames. If you are looking for suggestions on what to name a child or a character for a piece of writing, here is a list of the most common surnames in Canada. 

These are the 10 top last names in Canada and their meanings:

  • Smith: Smith is the most common surname in Canada. It dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and means “someone who works with metal.” Smith is a very common surname outside of Canada as well, it tops the list of surnames in many former English colonies like the USA and Australia. 
  • Brown: This surname of English origin is derived from a forebear’s dark complexion or emphasizing their brown hair.
  • Tremblay: A common name in French Canada of French origin, Tremblay means to live near a copse of Aspen trees.
  • Martin: A patronymic name given to the son of someone prominent named Martin. Martin is a modern version of Martinus, a Roman name derived from the god of war Mars. 
  • Roy: Roy can mean several things, it means king or land ruler in both French and some Indian languages, but also could be Scottish in origin meaning “red”, so it’s likely coming from a forebear with red hair. It could also be a patronymic meaning son of the king.
  • Gagnon: This is a last name of French origin for aggressive man, guard dog, or possibly Occitaine for “young pig.” It was probably a nickname of a particularly protective person.
  • Lee: Lee is a common Korean surname, but it can also be of Chinese or English origin, with “Lee” or “Leigh” coming from “leah” meaning meadow. 
  • Wilson: Wilson comes from Scottish or English origin, Wilson is a patronymic name meaning son of Wil, which was a common medieval name. It’s the shorter variant of Williamson which means son of William.
  • Johnson: This surname is another patronymic of English origin and means son of John.
  • MacDonald: A Scottish surname meaning coming from the Donald clan.

Closing Thoughts

You might think you have the most boring surname in the world, but you’re wrong! Even if you have a popular surname, there is a lot you can learn about your family by doing a little digging into the history of your last name. If you are at all curious about your ancestors and who they were, your surname and their surnames are a great place to get started!

The next step after that would be to start looking around old photo albums for old photographs. You never know what you might find once you start going through the boxes of photographs you have at home. Just in case any of them need to be repaired, there are services you can call – Image Restoration Center is one such place.

If you find a photo in your search that needs some restoration, contact us today! Our service is easy, quick, and affordable.

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