North-West Territories: 1870–1905

Established on 15 July 1870, the North-West Territories was the first Canadian territory. That is, the region became part of Canada, but lacked the population, economic and infrastructure resources to sustain provincial status, and thus fell under the jurisdiction of the federal government. It covered a vast area, stretching west from a disputed boundary with Labrador, and included the northern portions of present-day Québec and Ontario, across the prairies to British Columbia, and north from the 49th parallel to the Arctic Ocean. The territory was subject to numerous boundary changes before 1905, when the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were carved out of the southwest portion of the region. In 1906, the remaining territory was renamed the Northwest Territories.


After Confederation in 1867, the Canadian government expanded its reach westward in an effort to secure the country’s political and economic future. To that end, in 1870 it acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) for £300,000 and, even more valuable to the Company, a large land grant. Out of this vast territory, the tiny province of Manitoba was created on 15 July 1870. The remaining land was reconstituted as the North-West Territories (NWT). All this was accomplished without consultation with Indigenous peoples; that was undertaken retroactively in the treaty process of the 1870s, in 1899 and after 1905 (see Indigenous Peoples: Treaties). The federal government initially chose to govern the NWT through the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, based in Winnipeg, and an appointed Council.

External Boundary Changes

The external boundary of the North-West Territories was subject to many changes.

The boundary of Ontario was extended somewhat north in 1874. About this time, the region between Manitoba and Ontario was tied up in a boundary dispute , which was eventually resolved in Ontario’s favour. Manitoba’s boundary was somewhat increased to the east, west and north in 1881. Boundary disputes with Ontario persisted until 1889, when the federal government added significant portions of the NWT to the north of Ontario. In 1898, Québec’s boundaries were also extended northward.

The British transferred the Arctic Archipelago to Canada on 1 September 1880, and it was added to the NWT. The discovery of gold in Yukon in 1896 radically changed its circumstances, requiring a local government. In 1898, the federal government officially separated it from the NWT (see Yukon and Confederation). In 1912, the boundaries of Québec, Ontario and Manitoba were extended to their present size.

The District of Keewatin was created in 1876; its periodically changing boundaries extended north of Manitoba (to the Arctic Ocean) and east (to Hudson Bay and north of Ontario).

Internal Boundary Changes

In 1882, the federal government created four provisional districts in the south and west of the NWT: Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Athabasca. In 1895, additional provisional districts were created: Ungava (the north of present-day Québec), Mackenzie (between the 60th parallel and the Arctic Ocean), Franklin (the Arctic Archipelago) and Yukon. In the same year, the boundaries of Athabasca, formerly limited to north of Alberta, were extended east to Keewatin.

Early Development and the North-West Territories Act

The government always intended that the prairie and parkland portion of the western territories would be the prime focus of White settlement and economic development. It negotiated seven Numbered Treaties with Indigenous peoples between 1871 and 1877, covering territory from just west of Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. This was intended to ensure peaceful settlement. The government also surveyed a route for the transcontinental railway and in 1873 established the North-West Mounted Police to enforce the law.

Administration of government policy was conducted through the Department of the Interior (established in 1873). In 1875, it passed the North-West Territories Act to provide a framework for governance, and, as settlement grew, a gradual transition from appointed to representative government in matters of local concern. It also provided regulations for the establishment of denominational (Protestant and Roman Catholic) school systems, and for official status for the English and French languages (see North-West Schools Question).

Development of the NWT

The North-West Territories Act provided for a separate lieutenant-governor and appointed Council, and placed the capital in 1876 at Battleford; in 1883, it was moved to Regina. Agricultural settlement and the infrastructure and urban centres to support it grew steadily after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1885. The 1885 census of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan and Alberta reported a total population of 48,362, of which 20,170 (41.7 per cent) were Status Indians. The 1906 census of Saskatchewan and Alberta reported 443,175 people, of which 12,861 (2.9 per cent) were Status Indians.

The tragedy of the North-West Resistance of the spring and early summer of 1885 was fuelled by discontent over unresolved Métis land claims, and Indigenous resentment over broken treaty promises (see Indigenous Land Claims). There was also much resentment among White settlers of perceived neglect of the region’s interests by a distant Ottawa government. This in turn drove regional demand for Territorial control of budgetary and relevant policy matters, and ultimately a demand for provincial status. The Territorial Assembly was almost entirely elected by 1888, and granted responsible government in 1897. Official status for the French language was terminated in 1892, and the NWT moved to impose centralized state control over the denominational school system.

Throughout the territorial period, the federal government retained control of the region’s public lands and natural resources (except on reserves), to ensure national control of the settlement process and integration of the West into the national economy. The territorial government thus was denied the revenue from lands and resources and control of development that the provinces (except for Manitoba) enjoyed. Also contributing to western resentment were protective tariffs to benefit central Canada, years of monopoly to ensure the viability of the CPR, vast land grants to the railways and the HBC, and freight rates structured to benefit the railways at the expense of the farmer. The struggle to wrest provincial status from a resistant federal authority, led most notably by Frederick Haultain, helped to entrench in the territories a deep suspicion of Ottawa, a heritage of protest, and a commitment to ideals of local control and direct democracy.

The increasing protests bore fruit in September 1905 when the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta (see Autonomy Bills). However, the process was highly controversial, as Ottawa entrenched public and separate school systems in the provincial constitutions and retained federal control of public lands and natural resources in the new provinces.

See also Territorial Government; Historical Boundaries of Canada.

Further Reading

  • Gerald Friesen, Prairie Road (1984); J.A. Lower, Western Canada (1983).