Alberta and Saskatchewan (1905)

Map: Canada, 1905

Map: Canada, 1905
© Natural Resources Canada

Territorial development

The territorial evolution of Western Canada, at least until Canada purchased the North-Western Territory in 1868, was closely linked to European exploration and development of the territory after the 17th century.

The fur trade was the main reason for the exploration and development of the territory. The French and English competed with each other to discover various waterways and to establish trading posts. By the end of the 18th century, two rival companies were operating in the area: the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. The first company was owned by British interests, the second by Canadian interests, mostly from Montreal.

By the end of the 19th century, Western Canada was transformed into an agricultural land base. The first permanent European settlements in Western Canada were found in the Red River region, near Fort Garry (Winnipeg). One such settlement, the Selkirk Concession, forever changed the relationship that the Europeans had with the land as well as with the Native peoples.

Since Confederation in 1867, the United States demonstrated true expansionist aims. Already, nine new states had been founded, four of which were located along the Canadian-American border. By the end of the decade, many American merchants and settlers had their eye on the sparsely populated vast Canadian plains. Furthermore, for Canadian authorities, the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867 posed a threat of an annexationist groundswell from their Southern neighbour.

Despite its 1821 merger with the North West Company, the Hudson's Bay Company was experiencing financial difficulties -- it could no longer find a way to make the fur trade profitable. These problems, paired with immense pressure imposed by Great Britain, ensured the purchase of the North-Western Territory and Rupert's Land by the Government of Canada. Negotiations between Canada, Great Britain and the Hudson's Bay Company created an agreement that was ratified in 1868. Under the terms, Canada bought the territories in question -- approximately 3 million hectares (7 million acres) of fertile land and other land grants -- for the sum of 300,000 pounds sterling (CAN$1,460,000 -- in 1869 dollars).


According to the federal census, Canada had a population of 4.8 million in 1891. The Canadian population numbered close to 5.4 million by 1901. The Northwest Territories had a population of almost 67,000 in 1891 and almost 159,000 in 1901. The largest cities were Broadview, Calgary, Red Deer, Regina, Moose Jaw, Fort MacLeod, Edmonton and Prince Albert.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Northwest Territories was mostly populated by people of British origin, but there was also a strong Métis presence in the area. Settlers of German, Russian, French, Austro-Hungarian and Scandinavian origins had made their homes in the region as well. The majority were Protestant (Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans), but there were also Catholics, Doukhobors and members of other denominations.


Economy and urban development

The Canadian Prairies evoke, with good reason, the image of vast agricultural lands stretching as far as the eye can see. Without questioning that image of the Prairies, it is important to emphasize that the territories west of Ontario also saw urban development: towns, mining centres, logging camps and railway construction sites.

The urban development of the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan took place some years after that of Manitoba and its capital Winnipeg. Lethbridge was the centre of the new coal industry. The construction of a railway line joining Calgary and Edmonton was initiated in 1891. The population of Edmonton, greatly disappointed to learn that the railway stopped on the opposite bank of the river and that a new city, Strathcona, would be built, lobbied for the construction of a bridge over the Saskatchewan River. Strathcona, for its part, received aid from the federal government and from the Canadian Pacific. This rivalry between the two cities disappeared once they were amalgamated in 1912.

In 1911, a quarter of the economic activity of Calgary was based on animal breeding (slaughterhouses, tanneries, etc.), whereas Edmonton developed around freight yards, flour mills, sawmills and livestock markets. It also obtained, during the first decade of the 20th century, maintenance contracts for the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific-National Transcontinental railways. Eventually, its choice as provincial capital in 1905 ensured for it the development of a public service and of an increasingly significant services sector. Regina and Saskatoon also experienced significant urban development at the beginning of the century: the building of universities, railway-crossing procurement and Regina's status as the provincial capital.


Political organization

On June 22, 1869, following the purchase of the North-Western Territory and Rupert's Land, the Canadian Parliament adopted An Act for the temporary Government of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory when united with Canada. One of the most important aspects of this law was that it established an advisory council composed of members who were designated by Ottawa. Although its powers were limited, the council played an important role in recommending certain measures to the lieutenant-governor. From 1871 (date the council was finally formed) to 1888, the Northwest Territories was therefore administered by a lieutenant-governor and a council.

In 1875, the Canadian government adopted the Act to amend and consolidate the Laws respecting the North-West Territories (The North-West Territories Act, 1875). It established a legal distinction between the office of lieutenant-governor of Manitoba and that of the Northwest Territories. It also established a new advisory council, composed of five members this time, whose powers were greater than those of the council of 1871. Another aspect of this council was that it also had members elected by districts whose population surpassed 1,000 inhabitants. As soon as this advisory council had more than 25 members, it became a legislative assembly.

After 1888, the Northwest Territories was administered by a legislative assembly. Although there was no cabinet strictly speaking, there was an advisory committee for financial matters. The Assembly had certain powers: taxation, issuing of permits, establishment of municipal institutions and courts and incorporation of local companies. The Assembly also had the power to spend money acquired through taxes, while the lieutenant-governor had the power to spend money from the federal government. That situation led to many conflicts between the lieutenant-governor and the Legislative Assembly.

On November 27, 1890, the members of the Assembly openly declared to the lieutenant-governor their dissatisfaction with the political organization of the Northwest Territories.

"Government by the minority against the expressed wish of the majority is a violation of the act (North-West Territories Act)... Your Honour may govern under instruction from Ottawa (in cases when for any reason you cannot act with the House), or by and with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly, but we can find nothing to show that your Honour is empowered to govern with advisers responsible only to yourself."
(Norman Fergus Black, A history of Saskatchewan and the old North West, North West Historical Company Publishers, Regina, 1913, p. 402-403)

In 1891, the North-West Territories Act, 1875 was amended to increase the powers of the Legislative Assembly. From that time on, the Assembly would recommend to the lieutenant-governor the procedures to follow regarding expenditures of all public funds, no matter their origin. The Assembly also formed an executive committee that from 1891 to 1897, increasingly resembled a ministerial cabinet. Its members received a salary and took an oath. The lieutenant-governor was not permitted to sit on that committee.



Representation in Ottawa

In 1885 the first representatives of the Northwest Territories were elected to the House of Commons. Initially, four members of Parliament were sent to Ottawa: D. W. Davis for the Alberta constituency; D. H. Macdowall for the Saskatchewan constituency; W. D. Perley for the East Assiniboia constituency; and Nicholas Flood Davin for the West Assiniboia constituency. It was also on that date that the first senators representing the Northwest Territories were named.

Responsible government

At the end of 1897, the Government of Canada brought about significant changes in the administration of the Northwest Territories. The executive committee was replaced by an executive council, the government offices were reorganized and departments were created. All of these changes were undertaken in order to obtain a more efficient public service. In other words, the Northwest Territories finally obtained responsible government. On October 28, 1897, in his Speech from the Throne, the lieutenant-governor did not forget to congratulate the province.

Process and issues

Just because Ottawa gave the Territories these concessions did not mean that they were satisfied with their position within Canada. Although the immigration Policy introduced by Ottawa in 1896 was generally beneficial, producing a considerable population increase, that same policy also demanded much of the Territories. It was expected that the territorial government provide schools and bear the cost for public works and other services. For a government which possessed almost all the powers and responsibilities of a province in its own right, but which did not have the financial resources to act, the situation began to become difficult. The Territories could not borrow money, could not obtain revenues from public lands (administered by Ottawa), could not tax the Canadian Pacific Railway (a charter prevented them from doing so) and could not grant exploitation charters to new railway companies. Federal monies were no longer sufficient.

From that time on, it seemed that only the granting of provincial status would fulfill the politicians' requests in the Northwest Territories. Under the leadership of "Premier" F. W. G. Haultain, the Legislative Assembly carried a motion demanding territorial self-government. In 1900 and 1901, Prime Minister Laurier met with Haultain and J.  H. Ross to discuss the matter. Following those visits, a bill was drawn up and presented to Laurier. In the bill, Haultain and his team proposed a union of the districts of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Athabasca into one province which would have the same powers and responsibilities as the other Canadian provinces and which would be represented by ten members of Parliament in the House of Commons and by four senators. "Premier" Haultain also recommended that Crown lands fall under the jurisdiction of the new province and that the province receive a grant of $50,000 for legislative purposes and another grant of $200,000, the equivalent of $0.80 per inhabitant.

From 1902 to 1904, a series of requests from the Legislative Assembly of the Territories demanded provincial self-government. The opposition parties sided with "Premier" Haultain. In May 1904, Haultain wrote again to Prime Minister Laurier to request the resumption of negotiations. No response was received before September 1904, when Laurier wrote to Haultain to inform him that the federal Parliament had just been dissolved and that election proceedings had begun. Although he could not do anything for the moment, Laurier promised that if he were re-elected, he would make it his duty to resolve the issue of the Northwest Territories. After he won the victory, Laurier kept his promise. In January 1905, Haultain and G. H. V. Bulyea arrived in Ottawa to resume negotiations. Also present were Sir William Mulock, Charles Fitzpatrick and Thomas Walter Scott. Territorial self-government was within reach.

Negotiations were difficult for four reasons: the question of how many provinces to create, the proprietary issue of Crown lands, financial arrangements (grants, subsidies) and the schools question.

One province or two?

Although Haultain had always demanded the creation of only one province, in the end it was decided otherwise. This decision is often explained by the fact that a single province would have been too large to administer. But, it also must be added that the idea of a single province did not appeal to most of the population of the Northwest Territories in the face of intensifying rivalries between communities for provincial capital status.

Crown lands

Haultain wanted the new provinces themselves to administer the Crown lands and thus be considered as having the same authority as other Canadian provinces. Laurier decided otherwise by stating that, unlike the provinces which had already joined Canada, Saskatchewan and Alberta had never owned Crown lands within their territory. The Canadian government wanted to maintain control over immigration policies aimed at populating the Prairies. Without control of lands, the success of these policies was not ensured.

Financial arrangements

Early indications were that entry into Confederation was financially favourable for the two new provinces. Ottawa considerably increased all grants that they received. In 1904, Ottawa granted $1,636,000 to the Northwest Territories. On their entry into Confederation, Alberta and Saskatchewan each received $1,030,375 plus an annual allowance of $62,500 for five years.

The Schools question

Eventually, the schools question gave rise to a debate that once again occupied the Laurier administration for a long time. Under the North-West Territories Act, 1875, a public school system was implemented which allowed religious minorities (Catholic or Protestant) to establish separate schools independently financed through taxation. From 1901 on, it could be said that the separate schools were under the control of the Northwest Territories government. The first version of the laws of 1905 seemed to introduce a separate Catholic school system. Following recriminations from many influential members of Parliament within the Liberal government, among them Clifford Sifton, who resigned in 1905, Laurier arrived at a compromise.

Provincial status

On September 1st, 1905, the Saskatchewan Act and the Alberta Act were adopted by the Canadian government and two new provinces joined Canada.



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  • Fergus Black, Norman. -- A history of Saskatchewan and the old North West. -- Regina : North West Historical Company, 1913. -- 605 p.
  • Francis, R. Douglas ; Palmer, Howard (eds). -- The prairie west : historical readings. -- 2nd ed. -- Edmonton : Pica Press, 1992. -- 748 p.
  • Lingard, C. Cecil. -- Territorial government in Canada : the autonomy question in the old North-West Territories. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1946. -- 269 p.
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