Northwest Territories

Northwest Territories

Northwest Territories, territory (2001 pop. 37,360), 532,643 sq mi (1,379,028 sq km), NW Canada. The Northwest Territories lie W of Nunavut, N of lat. 60°N, and E of Yukon. Until 1999, when the Northwest Territories were divided and the eastern portion became Nunavut, the region occupied more than one third of Canada's area. Yellowknife is the territorial capital.

Land and People

Geographically, the region is largely south of the tree line, which runs roughly northwest to southeast, from the Mackenzie River delta in the Arctic Ocean to the southeastern corner of the territory. Tundra characterizes the land north of the tree line; there the native inhabitants depend on hunting, fur-trapping, and making arts and crafts for income, and obtain many necessities from fish, seals, reindeer, and caribou. Most of the development in the territory has taken place south of the tree line, where the land is well covered with soft woods and rich in minerals. Here, too, are two of the largest lakes in the world, Great Slave and Great Bear, linked to the Arctic Ocean by one of the world's longest rivers, the Mackenzie, which runs 1,120 mi (1,800 km) from its source in Great Slave Lake. The Northwest Territories are the site of the northern end of Wood Buffalo National Park (est. 1922) and all of Nahanni National Park (est. 1972).


Agriculture in the Northwest Territories is virtually impossible except for limited cultivation south of the Mackenzie River region. Trapping, the region's oldest industry, ranks second after mining. A thriving commercial fishing industry, based on whitefish and lake trout, is centered on the village of Hay River, on Great Slave Lake. Minerals are now the Territories' most valuable natural resource. Oil is pumped and refined at Tulita (formerly Fort Norman) and Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River; copper is extracted on the Coppermine River; and diamonds and gold are being produced in increasing quantities. The region also has tungsten, silver, cadmium, nickel, zinc, and lead. Important hydroelectric developments are on the Talston and Snare rivers.

Transportation and Communication

Transportation and communication in the Northwest Territories are difficult. Long winters close the rivers to navigation for all but two months of the year. Despite the Great Slave Railway and the Mackenzie highway system, which links Alberta to the Great Slave area, commerce, supply, and travel continue to be largely airborne. The region has scores of airfields. An ongoing northern roads program, launched in 1966, is helping to open up the area. The Liard Highway, opened in 1984, ties Ft. Simpson to the Alaska Highway. Other highways link Inuvik to the Yukon and Hay River and Yellowknife to the highways of Alberta. In winter, some frozen rivers and lakes are used for road traffic. There are also extensive telecommunications services.


The territory is governed by a 19-member assembly that elects a premier and cabinet; an appointed commissioner holds a position similar to that of a lieutenant governor in the Canadians provinces. The territory sends one senator and one representative to the national parliament.


When European incursions into the area began, they encountered the hunting and fishing Inuit and Dene. Vikings from Greenland may have been the first Europeans to venture into the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut. Sir Martin Frobisher was the first in a long line of explorers to seek a Northwest Passage, but it was Henry Hudson who discovered the gateway to the Northwest (Hudson Bay) in 1610.

For several decades the Hudson's Bay Company sent trader-explorers through the northern sea lanes and along the coast, and in 1771, Samuel Hearne walked from Hudson Bay and descended the Coppermine River. In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie, exploring for the North West Company, journeyed to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Sir John Franklin made scientific expeditions to the Arctic Northwest in the first half of the 19th cent., obtaining valuable geographical data.

The area that is now the Northwest Territories and Nunavut was part of the vast lands sold by the Hudson's Bay Company to the new Canadian confederation in 1870. Some of those lands were added to the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The province of Manitoba was carved from them in 1870, and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, all south of 60°N. Yukon had become separate in 1898. The boundaries of the Northwest Territories were then set in 1912 and remained fixed until the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

Since the 1982 patriation of the Canadian constitution (see Canada Act), several land claims by native peoples have been making their way through the courts and the federal government. In 1992, Northwest Territories residents voted to divide the territory roughly along ethnic lines, with the Inuit in the east and the Dene in the west. The new territory of Nunavut, dominated by the Inuit, came into existence on Apr. 1, 1999. This split the Northwest Territories along a zigzag line running from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border through the Arctic Archipelago to the North Pole. Other native groups with claims are the Métis and the Inuvialuit. Joe Handley became the Territories' premier in Dec., 2003.


See R. A. Phillips, Canada: The Story of the Yukon and Northwest Territories (1966); K. J. Rea, Political Economy of the North (1968, repr. 1981); W. C. Wonders, ed., The North (1972); T. R. Berger, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1976).

The Northwest Territories (NWT or NT; French, les Territoires du Nord-Ouest) is a territory of Canada.

Located in northern Canada, it borders Canada's two other territories, Yukon to the west and Nunavut to the east, and three provinces: British Columbia to the southwest, Alberta and Saskatchewan to the south. It has an area of and a population of 41,464 as of the 2006 census, an increase of 11.0% from 2001. Its capital has been Yellowknife since 1967.

Geographical features include the vast Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes, as well as the immense Mackenzie River and the canyons of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Territorial islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago include Banks Island, Borden Island, Prince Patrick Island, and parts of Victoria Island and Melville Island. The highest point is Mount Nirvana near the border with Yukon at an elevation 2,773 metres (9,098 ft).


The present-day territory was created in June 1870, when the Hudson's Bay Company transferred Rupert's Land and North-Western Territory to the government of Canada. This immense region comprised all of non-confederation Canada except British Columbia, the coast of the Great Lakes, the Saint Lawrence River valley and the southern third of Quebec, the Maritimes, Newfoundland, and the Labrador coast. It also excluded the Arctic Islands except the southern half of Baffin Island; these remained under direct British claim until 1880.

After the transfer, the territories were gradually whittled away. The province of Manitoba was created on 15 July 1870, a tiny square around Winnipeg, and then enlarged in 1881 to a rectangular region composing the modern province's south. By the time British Columbia joined Confederation on 20 July 1871, it had already (1866) been granted the portion of North-Western Territory south of 60 degrees north and west of 120 degrees west, an area that had comprised most of the Stikine Territory. In 1882, Regina in the District of Assiniboia became the territorial capital; after Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, Regina became the provincial capital of Saskatchewan.

In 1876, the District of Keewatin, at the centre of the territory, was separated from it. In 1882 and again in 1896, the remaining portion was divided into the following districts (corresponding to the following modern-day areas):

Keewatin was returned to NWT in 1905.

In the meantime, Ontario was enlarged northwestward in 1882. Quebec was also extended, in 1898, and Yukon was made a separate territory in the same year to deal with the Klondike Gold Rush and to remove the NWT government from administering the sudden boom of population, economic activity and influx of non-Canadians.

The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905, and Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec acquired the last of their modern territories from NWT in 1912. This left only the districts of Mackenzie, Franklin (which absorbed the remnants of Ungava in 1920), and Keewatin. In 1925, the boundaries of NWT were extended all the way to the North Pole on the sector principle, vastly expanding its territory onto the northern ice cap. The reduced Northwest Territories was not represented in the Canadian House of Commons from 1907 until 1947 when the electoral district of Yukon—Mackenzie River was created. This riding only included the District of Mackenzie. The rest of the Northwest Territories had no representation in the House of Commons until 1962, when the Northwest Territories electoral district was created in recognition of the Inuit having been given the right to vote in 1953.

In 1912 the Government of Canada renamed the territory to Northwest Territories, dropping the hyphenated form. Between 1925 and 1999, the Northwest Territories measured – larger than India.

Finally, on April 1, 1999, the eastern three-fifths of the Northwest Territories (including all of the Keewatin district and much of the Mackenzie and Franklin) became a separate territory called Nunavut.

There was some discussion of changing the name of the Northwest Territories after the separation of Nunavut, possibly to a term from an Aboriginal language. One proposal was "Denendeh" ("our land" in Dene). The idea was advocated by former premier Stephen Kakfwi, among others. One of the most popular proposals for a new name—to name the territory Bob—started out as a prank, but for a time was at or near the top in opinion polls. In the end, as a poll conducted prior to division showed, strong support remained for retaining the name "Northwest Territories". This name arguably became more appropriate following division than it was when the territory extended far into Canada's northeast.

In Inuktitut, the Northwest Territories are referred to as ᓄᓇᑦᓯᐊᖅ (Nunatsiaq), "beautiful land."


According to the 2001 Canadian census the 10 major ethnic groups were:

Population of Northwest Territories since 1871

Year Population five-year
% change
% change
Rank among provinces
and territories
1871 48,000 n/a n/a 6
1881 56,446 n/a 17.6 7
1891 98,967 n/a 75.3 7
1901 20,1291 n/a -79.7 11
1911 6,5072 n/a -67.7 11
1921 8,143 n/a 25.1 10
1931 9,316 n/a 14.4 10
1941 12,028 n/a 29.1 10
1951 16,004 n/a 33.1 11
1956 19,313 20.7 n/a 11
1961 22,998 19.1 43.7 11
1966 28,738 25.0 48.8 11
1971 34,805 21.1 51.3 11
1976 42,610 22.4 48.3 11
1981 45,740 7.3 31.4 11
1986 52,235 14.2 22.6 11
1991 57,649 10.3 26.0 11
1996 64,402 11.7 23.2 11
2001 37,3603 -42.0 -35.2 11
2006 41,4644 12.0 -35.0 11
Yukon Territory was ceded from the Northwest Territories in 1898.
Alberta and Saskatchewan were created from parts of the Northwest Territories in 1905.
Data through 1996 includes Nunavut. 2001 data does not include Nunavut.
2006 census data.


The largest denominations by number of adherents according to the 2001 census were the Roman Catholic Church with 16,940 (46 %); the Anglican Church of Canada with 5,510 (15 %); and the United Church of Canada with 2,230 (6 %).


French was made an official language in 1877 by the appointed government, after lengthy and bitter debate resulting from a speech from the Throne in 1888 by Lt. Governor Joseph Royal. The members voted on more than one occasion to nullify and make English the only language used in the assembly. After some conflict with Ottawa and a decisive vote on January 19 1892, the assembly members voted for an English-only territory.

In the early 1980s, the federal government pressured the government of the Northwest Territories to reintroduce French as an official language. Some Native members walked out of the assembly, protesting that they were not be permitted to speak their own language. The executive council appointed a special committee of MLAs (?) to study the matter. They decided that if French was to be an official language, then the other languages in the territories must also be allowed.

The Northwest Territories' Official Languages Act recognizes the following eleven official languages, which are more than in any other political division in the Americas:

NWT residents have a right to use any of the above languages in a territorial court and in debates and proceedings of the legislature. However, laws are legally binding only in their French and English versions, and the government only publishes laws and other documents in the territory's other official languages when the legislature asks it to. Furthermore, access to services in any language is limited to institutions and circumstances where there is significant demand for that language or where it is reasonable to expect it given the nature of the services requested. In practical terms, English language services are universally available, and there is no guarantee that other languages, including French, will be used by any particular government service except for the courts.

Mother tongue

The 2006 census returns showed a population of 41,464. Of the 40,680 singular responses to the census question concerning 'mother tongue', the most reported languages were:
1 English 31,545 77.5%
2 Dogrib 1,950 4.8%
3 South Slavey 1,285 3.2%
4 French 975 2.4%
5 North Slavey 835 2.1%
6 Inuktitut 695 1.7%
7 Tagalog 505 1.2%
8 Chipewyan 390 1.0%
9 Vietnamese 305 0.8%
10 Chinese 260 0.6%
11= Cree 190 0.5%
11= German 190 0.5%
11= Gwich'in 190 0.5%

There were also 320 responses of both English and a 'non-official language'; 15 of both French and a 'non-official language'; 45 of both English and French, and about 400 people who either did not respond to the question, or reported multiple non-official languages, or else gave some other unenumerated response. The Northwest Territories' official languages are shown in bold.

(Figures shown are for the number of single language responses and the percentage of total single-language responses)


The territory enjoys vast geological resources including diamonds, gold, and natural gas. In particular, NWT diamonds are touted as an ethical alternative that allays risks of supporting conflicts by purchasing blood diamonds. However, their exploitation has raised environmental concerns, including the potential havoc that a spill from tailings ponds could cause to unspoiled wilderness areas.

The vast natural resources and relatively low population give the Northwest Territories the highest per capita GDP of all provinces or territories in Canada. In fact, its per capita GDP of C$97,923 would rank it first in the world if it were considered as its own country, well ahead of Luxembourg (at approximately C$83,000 (nominal GDP)).

Major territorial mines


As a territory, the Northwest Territories has fewer rights than the provinces. During his term, Premier Kakfwi pushed to have the federal government accord more rights to the territory, including having a greater share of the returns from the territory's natural resources go to the territory. Devolution of powers to the territory was an issue in the 20th general election in 2003, and has been ever since the territory began electing members in 1881.

The commissioner of the NWT is the chief executive and is appointed by the Governor-in-Council of Canada on the recommendation of the federal Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The position used to be more administrative and governmental, but with the devolution of more powers to the elected assembly since 1967, the position has become symbolic. Since 1985 the commissioner no longer chairs meetings of the Executive Council (or cabinet), and the federal government has instructed commissioners to behave like a provincial lieutenant governor. Unlike lieutenant governors, the commissioner of the Northwest Territories is not a formal representative of the Queen of Canada.

Unlike provincial governments and the Yukon, the government of the Northwest Territories does not have political parties, except for the period between 1898 and 1905. It is a consensus government called the Legislative Assembly. This group is composed of one member elected from each of the nineteen constituencies. After each general election, the new parliament elects a premier and speaker by secret ballot. Seven MLAs are also chosen as cabinet ministers, with the remainder forming the opposition. The territory's most recent general election was on October 1 2007. The head of state for the territories is a Commissioner appointed by the federal government. The Commissioner had full governmental powers until 1980 when the territories were given greater self government. The legislature then began electing a cabinet and Government Leader later known as the Premier.

The Premier of the Northwest Territories is Floyd Roland. The member of Parliament for Western Arctic, the riding that comprises the Northwest Territories, is Dennis Bevington (New Democratic Party). The Commissioner of the Northwest Territories is Tony Whitford.


Aboriginal issues in the Northwest Territories include the fate of the Dene who, in the 1940s, were employed to carry radioactive uranium ore from the mines on Great Bear Lake. Their cancer rates skyrocketed because of the lack of safety procedures that were available to their white colleagues.

There is historic racial tension based on the bloody history between the Dene and the Inuit, who nevertheless have taken recent steps towards reconciliation.

Land claims in the NWT culminated with the creation of the Inuit homeland of Nunavut, the result of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the largest land claim in Canadian history.

Another land claims agreement with the Dogrib nation created a region within NWT called Tli Cho, between Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes, which will give the Dogrib their own legislative bodies, taxes, resource royalties, and other affairs, though NWT will still maintain control over such areas as health and education. This area includes two of Canada's three diamond mines at Ekati and Diavik.

See also



  • Ecosystem Classification Group, and Northwest Territories. Ecological Regions of the Northwest Territories Taiga Plains. Yellowknife, NWT: Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources, Govt. of the Northwest Territories, 2007. ISBN 0770801617

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