The Northwest Territories (1870)

Map: Canada, 1870

Map: Canada, 1870
© Natural Resources Canada

The history of the political, constitutional and territorial evolution of the Northwest Territories is closely tied to the history of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Yukon Territory and Nunavut. To understand the evolution of the Northwest Territories we know today, we must examine the territory's complex history.


The exploration of the Far North centred largely on the search for the Northwest Passage, a water route over North America that could potentially be used as a trade route to the eastern hemisphere. European exploration of the Arctic began in the mid 1500s and continued until the early 20th century. It would lead to a greater understanding of the geography of Canada's North and of the value of the natural resources found there.

In 1897, Wilfrid Laurier's government was the first to take concrete action to assert Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic Archipelago. Prime Minister Laurier sent William Wakeham there to establish Canadian jurisdiction.

From 1903 to 1911, the expeditions of A. P. Low and J.-E. Bernier maintained a Canadian presence in these isolated territories.

Territorial Evolution

  • 1870: The Hudson's Bay Company transfers the North-Western Territory and Rupert's Land to the government of Canada, and these become the Northwest Territories.
  • 1870: The province of Manitoba is created.
  • 1880: The Arctic islands in northern Canada, under British jurisdiction until now, become Canadian. This transaction substantially increases the size of the Northwest Territories.
  • 1881: Manitoba's borders are extended at the expense of the Northwest Territories.
  • 1882: Ontario's borders are extended at the expense of the Northwest Territories.
  • 1882: The Northwest Territories is divided into four administrative districts: Alberta, Assiniboia, Athabaska and Saskatchewan.
  • 1895: Other administrative divisions are added: Yukon, Mackenzie, Franklin and Ungava.
  • 1898: Quebec's borders are extended at the expense of the Northwest Territories.
  • 1898: To deal with the gold rush, the Yukon is made a territory (the Yukon Territory) like the Northwest Territories.
  • 1905: The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are created.
  • 1912: The current borders of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are established.
  • 1912: The Northwest Territories is again divided into districts: Mackenzie, Keewatin and Franklin.
  • 1999: The territory of Nunavut is created in the eastern Arctic.

Geography, Population and Urban Centres

In 1905, the Northwest Territories covered 3,379,000 km2, or 34% of Canada. The territory, whose geographical features are extremely varied, is home to rivers, lakes, mountains, plains, forests, tundra, rocky coastlines and islands.

According to the 1911 federal census, the total population of the Northwest Territories was about 17,000. Of these, nearly 16,000 were of the various Aboriginal groups, about 500 were British, and about 200 were French. The Aboriginal peoples included the Métis, the Inuit, the Cree, the Chipewyan, the Yellow Knife, the Slave, the Dogrib, the Hare and the Kaska.


Transportation in the Northwest Territories was rudimentary. There were no railways that crossed the entire territory and the few existing roads were poorly maintained. Inhabitants counted on methods of transportation adapted to the terrain, travelling either by canoe on lakes and rivers in the summer or by dogsled in the winter. Larger boats could also reach certain areas, but only when the waterways were free of ice.

The Economy and the Aboriginal Population

Before the end of the 19th century, the fur trade had given rise to trading posts along the Mackenzie River. With the arrival of these posts, Aboriginal people came into more frequent contact with white people. A growing number of Native people began to adopt a more southern way of life.

Near the turn of the 20th century, when the population boomed as a result of the gold rush, economic development in the Northwest Territories was primarily dependent on the mining industry. Silver and copper mining were next in importance to gold. These metals were mined extensively in the Northwest Territories from the early 1900s until the beginning of the Depression in 1929.

Similarly, the fur trade -- the primary economic activity in Canada's North and Far North throughout history -- remained crucial during the first decades of the 20th century. However a return to a peacetime economy and the economic crisis of 1929 combined with a fluctuation in international demand to make the fur trade increasingly less profitable in the Northwest Territories.


Aboriginal peoples were participating more and more in the mainstream Canadian market economy. This acculturation process intensified with the arrival of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. They offered religion, of course, but their goal was also to change Aboriginal education and community support systems, and to instil Western values in the Aboriginal population.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries were active throughout the history of the Canadian Northwest. They initially came to support the predominantly English- and French-speaking settlers living and working in the territories, but over time, they began to evangelize the Native people. With the financial support of the federal government, the missionaries organized a formal educational system. The Presbyterians and Methodists were the most active of the Protestant churches while the Oblates, with the support of the Grey Nuns and the Sisters of Charity, represented Catholics.

The result of their missionary work is controversial. By giving Aboriginal children a Western education, the missionaries forever deprived them of a chance to live comfortably within their own culture. Moreover, the racism prevalent in Canadian society in the early 20th century prevented young Aboriginal people from fully enjoying many of the privileges that came with living in Canada.

The Indian Acts

Legislative amendments to the various laws governing Aboriginal peoples served the interests of the federal government rather than genuinely addressing Aboriginal concerns. The Indian Act, 1876, a revised version of all the laws governing Native people, was an important milestone. The fact that enfranchisement was considered a kind of reward for Aboriginals who assumed their responsibilities as "serious citizens" illustrates how progress was defined in the 19th century. In the last twenty years of the 19th century, the Department of Indian Affairs (now the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development) was primarily concerned with extending its power in the Canadian West. Government officials thought that if they were given the means, the First Nations and Métis would become skilled farmers. They did not understand that the values of these peoples were incompatible with the Western concept of free enterprise.

By 1880, the bison had practically disappeared from the plains of Canada, destroying the traditional way of life of First Nations and Métis living on the Prairies. John A. Macdonald's return to power and the adoption of his National Policy in 1878, demonstrated a desire on the part of the government to peaceably gather Western Aboriginal people onto reserves, where they could take up farming. The First Nations and Métis found it difficult to adapt to the sudden change in lifestyle, the harsh winters, the epidemics, the famine, and the arrival of non-Aboriginals with the Canadian Pacific railway. The Northwest Rebellion of 1885 would be the result.

After 1879, the government of John A. Macdonald tried in several ways to help Aboriginal people in the West regain a certain measure of self-sufficiency. Their slow transition to autonomous farming, however, "disappointed" federal officials. A mass arrival of immigrants in the West spurred the Department of Indian Affairs to dramatically shift its objectives and activities. In the first years of the 20th century, Canada's total population grew by 35%. The settlement of Western Canada resulted in massive railway and road construction. Cities appeared and demand for farmland increased. All these factors would have an enormous influence on the Native people's way of life.


In 1870, when Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory became the property of Canada and were renamed the Northwest Territories, they were governed directly by Ottawa. The Act for the temporary government of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory when united with Canada created an interim government led by a lieutenant-governor (the first was William McDougall), and a council appointed by Ottawa.

With the Northwest Territories Act, 1875 (An Act to amend and consolidate the Laws respecting the North-West Territories), Ottawa appointed a lieutenant-governor (the first was David Laird) and a council. But there was one significant difference: the number of elected representatives on the council would rise in proportion to the growth of the Northwest Territories' population. A legislative assembly of elected representatives was created in 1886.

In the meantime, in 1887, the federal government created four seats in the House of Commons for the Northwest Territories. Donald Watson Davis was the member for the Alberta riding, Day Hort MacDowall sat for the Saskatchewan riding, William Dell Perley represented Assiniboia East, and Nicholas Flood Davin sat for Assiniboia West. In 1888, the Northwest Territories was given two seats in the Senate: Richard Hardisty and William Dell Perley were named the territory's first senators.

In 1905, when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created and the Northwest Territories was restructured, the government of the Northwest Territories comprised a commissioner appointed by Ottawa and senior officials who worked in Ottawa. The first commissioner appointed by Ottawa was Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick D. White, commander of the North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The situation would remain unchanged until after the Second World War.

From 1871 to 1877, the Canadian government signed a series of treaties with various First Nations. Treaties 1 and 2 (1871), signed with the Chippewa (or Ojibwa) and the Swampy Cree, covered a territory that included Manitoba and the surrounding land. Treaty 3 (1873), signed with the Chippewa (Ojibwa), covered the land from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods. Treaty 4 (1874), signed with the Cree, the Chippewa and the Assiniboine, covered the land in the Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine river valleys, west of Lake Winnipeg. Treaty 6 (1876), signed with the Plains Cree and the Woods Cree, covered the fertile land all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Treaty 7 (1877), signed with the Blackfoot Confederacy (the Blackfoot, Blood and Piegan), the Sarsi and other groups, covered the rest of the territory, from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains. Treaty 8 (1899), 9 (1905) and 10 (1906) covered the land further north, Ontario and the Mackenzie River basin.

To varying degrees, after signing these treaties, the Aboriginal people in western and northern Canada abandoned their land, from Lake Superior to the foothills of the Rockies. In return, the Canadian authorities gave them certain lands, reserves, the right to hunt and fish on these lands (unless inhabited by non-Aboriginal people), money, and so on. These treaties led the way for federal authorities to build a transcontinental railway and to open the land for settlement.

Toward Nunavut

From 1905 to the 1970s, the Northwest Territories underwent a number of administrative changes. The Aboriginal peoples also refined their claims and their methods of negotiating with the federal government. In the 1970s, the Inuit argued for the creation of a new political entity, Nunavut, based on their settlement and use of a part of the Northwest Territories.


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