North-West Territories (1870–1905) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


North-West Territories (1870–1905)

The North-West Territories was the first Canadian territory. It was Established on 15 July 1870. As a territory, the region became part of Canada. But it lacked the population, economic and infrastructure resources to attain provincial status. It thus fell under the jurisdiction of the federal government. It covered a vast area, stretching west from a disputed boundary with Labrador, across the northern portions of present-day Quebec and Ontario, through 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. At that time, 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.
Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 1870


After Confederation in 1867, the Canadian government expanded its reach westward in an effort to secure the country’s political and economic future. In 1870, it acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) for £300,000 (CAD$1.5 million) and a large land grant. Out of this vast territory, the tiny province of Manitoba was created on 15 July 1870. (See Manitoba Act.) The remaining land was reconstituted as the North-West Territories (NWT).

All of this was done without consulting the Indigenous peoples of the region. That process was undertaken retroactively in the the 1870s, in 1899 and after 1905. (See also Indigenous Peoples: Treaties.) The federal government initially chose to govern the NWT through Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor in Winnipeg, and an appointed Council.

External Boundary Changes

The external boundary of the NWT was subject to many changes. The boundary with Ontario was extended north in 1874. Around this time, the region between Manitoba and Ontario was tied up in a boundary dispute. It was eventually resolved in Ontario’s favour. Manitoba’s boundary was increased slightly to the east, west and north in 1881. Boundary disputes with Ontario persisted until 1889. At that time, the federal government added significant portions of the NWT to the north of Ontario. In 1898, Quebec’s boundaries were also extended northward.

Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 1898

The British transferred the Arctic Archipelago to Canada on 1 September 1880. It was added to the NWT. The discovery of gold in Yukon in 1896 brought about the need for a local government. In 1898, the federal government officially separated Yukon from the NWT and made it a territory. (See Yukon and Confederation.) In 1912, the boundaries of Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba were extended to their present locations.

The District of Keewatin was created in 1876. Its boundaries, which also changed periodically, extended north of Manitoba to the Arctic Ocean, 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. They included Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Athabasca. In 1895, additional provisional districts were created. They were Ungava (the northern part of present-day Quebec), Mackenzie (between the 60th parallel and the Arctic Ocean), Franklin (the Arctic Archipelago) and Yukon. Also in 1895, the boundaries of Athabasca, formerly limited to the north of Alberta, were extended east to Keewatin.

Early Development and the North-West Territories Act

The federal government always intended that the prairie and parkland portion of the western territories — what is now Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — would be the prime focus of White settlement and economic development. It negotiated seven Numbered Treaties with Indigenous peoples between 1871 and 1877. These treaties covered territory from just west of Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. They were intended to ensure peaceful settlement. The government also surveyed a route for the transcontinental railway. In 1873, it established the North-West Mounted Police to enforce the law.

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

Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 1905

Development of the NWT

The North-West Territories Act provided for a separate lieutenant-governor and appointed Council. It also placed the capital at Battleford in 1876. In 1883, it was moved to Regina. Agricultural settlement, along with 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 this, 20,170 people (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 in 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.) White settlers also resented what it saw as the federal government’s neglect of the region’s interests. This in turn drove demand for the territory to control budgetary and policy matters. Ultimately, it drove a demand for provincial status. By 1888, the Territorial Assembly was almost entirely elected. It was granted responsible government in 1897. Official status for the French language was terminated in 1892. The NWT then moved to impose centralized state control over the denominational school system.

Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 1912

Throughout the territorial period, the federal government retained control of the region’s public lands and natural resources (except on reserves). This ensured national control of the settlement process. It also integrated the West into the national economy. However, as a result, the territorial government was denied the revenue from lands and resources, as well as control of development, that the provinces enjoyed (except for Manitoba).

Other factors also contributed to western resentment. Protective tariffs benefited central Canada. The CPR operated as a monopoly for years to ensure its viability. Vast areas of land were granted to the railways and the HBC. And freight rates were structured to benefit the railways at the expense of the farmer. The struggle to wrest provincial status from a resistant federal government, led most notably by Frederick Haultain, helped to entrench in the territories a deep suspicion of Ottawa. It also established a history of protest and a commitment to ideals of local control and direct democracy.

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

See also: Territorial Government; Historical Boundaries of Canada; Redrawing the West: The Politics of Provincehood in 1905.

Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 1999

Further Reading