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For hundreds of years, the story goes, the native Huron people called the place where this city now rests a "meeting place," using a word that sounded like Toronto.

It is a romantic image from the past -- native people gathering, trading, holding ceremonies -- that fits well with present-day Toronto's identity as a multicultural capital of commerce.

Cited on countless travel Web sites promoting the city, this origin for Toronto's name pops up again and again in newspaper and magazine articles, on invitations to conventions and on amateur historical sites.

But according to Humber College professor John Steckley, the story is all wrong and Toronto wasn't a "meeting place" for native people at all.

Dr. Steckley, an expert in native languages who speaks Huron and has a PhD in anthropology, says most scholars now agree that the city's name comes from the Mohawk word tkaronto, which means "where there are trees in the water."

Barely anyone in the city seems to know this, Dr. Steckley says, partly because the other definition -- which comes from a 19th-century historian who didn't speak a native language -- makes such a useful slogan for the modern city.

The journey from tkaronto to Toronto is anything but direct. Dr. Steckley says the word originally referred to a place now called Atherley Narrows, about 125 kilometres north of the city, near Orillia. There, the water moves quickly as it flows between Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe.

As many as 4,500 years ago, native people drove stakes into the water to create fish weirs -- enclosures -- to catch fish as they swam through the narrows.

This continued for centuries, and was so successful that the place was considered sacred, a spot where the creator had guaranteed a bountiful source of food. The Mohawks called it tkaronto, and even named all of Lake Simcoe after it.

French explorers picked up the name, altering it slightly, and it appeared on a map around 1680 as Lac Taronto. The name later migrated to what is now the Humber River -- the route from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario -- as Passage de Taronto and Rivière Taronto. In the early 18th century, the French built what was sometimes called Fort Toronto, down at the mouth of the Humber, where the city stands today.

Later, after the British had taken over, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, who apparently didn't like native names, changed the name of the city to York in 1793. The citizenry petitioned to get the old name back, and in 1834, they got their wish.

So how did the Huron "meeting place" definition creep into popular myth? It comes from a prominent 19th-century local historian, Henry Scadding, in his 1884 work Toronto: Past and Present. He cited a 17th-century French missionary's translation of the Huron word toronton as il y a beaucoup -- there is a lot. And he interpreted it to mean a lot of people, or a meeting place.

Nonsense, according to Dr. Steckley, who said Scadding and other scholars of his era were ignorant of native languages. "I am fluent in Huron. And there is no way you would use it in that context."

But the "meeting place" story lives on. When Dr. Steckley goes to visit public-school classrooms to tell traditional native stories, both pupils and their teachers often repeat the well-worn Huron definition.

Years ago, officials from Toronto's failed 1996 Olympic bid called him and were disappointed to learn that they would be wrong to use the "meeting place" myth in their promotional material.

Dr. Steckley hopes to get the word out about the origins of the city's name through the media. "I am on this sort of one-man campaign . . . I know I sound like a fanatic, but I am."

University of Western Ontario instructor David Kanatawakhon Maracle, who teaches Mohawk language and culture, said native people thought differently than Europeans about naming places. They simply described their natural surroundings, and almost never named them after people.

There were likely several places named tkaronto, he said, but the name stuck because the French were the ones who wrote it down on a map. And the fact that most Torontonians don't seem to know where the name really comes from, he says, illustrates a gap in the education system.

"A lot of [what students learn about native people]is real stereotypical stuff that should have been buried 20 or 30 years ago," he said. "I get kids coming into the university with most bizarre ideas about native people."

Meanings of familiar names

Native names

We use aboriginal words for a number of place names in the greater Toronto area and beyond, often without knowing what they mean.

Professor John Steckley of Humber College translated a few:

Ontario: Huron for "large lake." The "io" means "it is large." Ohio, for instance, means "large river."

Etobicoke: Ojibway for "where there are alders," describing the bushes that still grow along Etobicoke's Humber River. In the original tongue, the K would have been pronounced.

Spadina: From an Ojibway word for "a high ridge of land," this name was given to a country house built by a prominent doctor in the early 19th century, where the historic Spadina House now stands.

Mississauga: The suburb's name means "large river mouth" in Ojibway, and actually refers to the original home of the Mississauga native people, near the mouth of the Mississagi River at the north end of Lake Huron.

Mimico: From an Ojibway word, omimi, meaning pigeon.

Canada: It does actually mean "village," as the television Heritage Minute describes.

French explorer Jacques Cartier met native people who spoke a language called St. Lawrence Iroquoian, and welcomed him to Canada -- or Kanata, the Ottawa suburb -- meaning their village.

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