How Canada and the US Adopted the Name the "Salish Sea" (The Queen of England gets involved...)

Bert Webber Salish Sea Name

Bert Webber, a retired professor from Western Washington University in Bellingham, first came up with the name Salish Sea.
Photo: John Lehmann / Globe and Mail

Submitted by: Bert Webber

In a previous article, we explained how the 70+ sovereign First Nations and Tribes of the Salish Sea officially adopted the Salish Sea name in 2007 by signing a deer hide painted with a map of the Salish Sea. Three years later, the governments of Canada and USA followed suit approving the name in early 2010. Here’s how it happened:

Both Canada and the USA have bureaucratic processes for officially naming geographical features. Federal government-appointed boards have the right to formally adopt a name, and provinces and states have committees that may recommend a name for an area within provincial or state boundaries.

The naming of the “Salish Sea” began with a proposal to call the combined waters of the Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca the Salish Sea—first submitted to the Washington State Board of Geographical names in 1989. The Board reviewed the proposal and decided the idea was “too experimental” and did not have a strong following, hence the proposal was tabled.

In spite of this, throughout the 20-year period between 1989 and 2009, the name continued to be used “informally”, particularly by the scientific community. In 2008, the Washington State Committee on Geographic names was asked to revisit the proposal to formally adopt the Salish Sea name. The committee agreed and reached out to the Province of BC Geographical Names Office and together, they conducted a review of the proposal. The review was positive and the Washington Board on Geographic Names approved the name in the fall of 2009.

"The Georgia Strait was named by Captain George Vancouver after the British monarch, King George III. But archaeological evidence has suggested that [Coast Salish] aboriginal communities existed around the Strait of Georgia and its southern extension, Puget Sound, for more than 8,000 years before the Europeans arrived." 1

However, this was just the beginning of the approval process. Final approval must come from the federal Geographical Names Board of Canada and the United States Board on Geographic Names. The US Board on Geographical Names quickly approved the name, and the Canadian board also expressed its support, pending the approval of the Province. And yet, as 2009 came to an end, the BC board remained silent on the proposal for the Salish Sea name—what was holding the Province back? BC’s elected government at the time decided they would make the final decision. The political overtones of this hesitation were in part related to the efforts of Coast Salish Elder George Harris, of the Stz’uminus (Chemainus) First Nation on Vancouver Island who had presented, a “scaled-down” variation of the idea—to rename the Strait of Georgia alone the “Salish Sea”—and who had better luck gaining support, in principle, from a cabinet minister and Premier Gordon Campbell in 2008.

The Legislative Assembly of BC begins each legislative session with the “speech from the throne”. The 2010 throne speech recommended that the BC government approve the Salish Sea name—incorporating all three bodies of water—and so it was. As of early 2010, the name was finally official in both countries.

The speech from the throne is prepared by the Queen of England. On the behalf of the Queen, her representative, the Lieutenant Governor of BC delivers the speech at the Legislative Assembly, and so it is that Queen Elizabeth had a ceremonial, and incontestable role in the naming of the Salish Sea.

Related articles:


The Naming of the Salish Sea


The Heart of the Salish Sea


1Strait talk: The plan to rename the sea