North-West Territories Act | The Canadian Encyclopedia


North-West Territories Act

The North-West Territories Act, passed by the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie in April 1875, was an attempt to improve government administration and direct the development of the North-West Territories. Established in 1870, the North-West Territories was the first Canadian territory. It covered a vast area, stretching from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains and from the forty-ninth parallel to the Arctic Ocean.
North-West Territories, 1870

Origins and Context

For most of the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company controlled much of the British North American interior — lands referred to as Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory. After 1867, the government of Canada sought to expand its territorial authority westward. The Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald was tremendously successful in this regard, creating the provinces of Manitoba in 1870 and British Columbia in 1871.

In 1870, Parliament set up a territorial government for the vast region stretching from the northern reaches of present-day Québec and Ontario, across the prairies to the Rocky Mountains and north from the forty-ninth parallel to the Arctic Ocean. Since the government established a territorial rather than provincial government, Parliament — based in Ottawa — controlled the territory’s political agenda (see North​-West Territories: 1870–1905).

Archibald, Sir Adams George
Sir Adams George Archibald (courtesy Provincial Archives of Manitoba).
Alexander Morris
Canadian politician, born 17 Mar 1826; died 28 Oct 1889.

Between 1870 and 1876, executive authority of the North-West Territories (NWT) was the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, who was based in Winnipeg, and the lieutenant-governor’s advisory council (constituted in 1872), all of whom were appointed by Ottawa. The first lieutenant-governor, Adams G. Archibald, had insufficient knowledge of the people and state of affairs in the NWT and his priority was the more populous Manitoba. His successor, Alexander Morris, was thwarted from establishing his executive agenda by Ottawa’s centralized authority and its apathetic approach to the NWT’s administration.

The Act’s Political and Social Dimensions

Seeking to better manage the NWT, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie passed the North-West Territories Act in April 1875. However, it did not come into operation until 7 October 1876, which coincided with the territorial capital being moved from Winnipeg to Battleford (in present-day Saskatchewan). Moving the capital into the actual territory ensured that the lieutenant-governor would be physically resident in the region under his administration. The first 13 sections of the Act outlined a new political and constitutional administration for what was essentially a federal government colony. While the Act established some semblance of an independent administration, it made no allowance for democratic initiative or responsible government; the territory would have no representation in Canada’s House of Commons or in its Senate. The Act did not outline any conditions for future provincehood.

The Act entrenched what was already in effect regarding the territory’s political leadership: the region’s residents were to be governed by an Ottawa-appointed lieutenant-governor and council, though the power they wielded was vaguely defined. The Act included a new provision, allowing the NWT government to pass and enforce territorial ordinances — executive decisions made by government — without Ottawa’s consent. The Act also left room in the council for elected officials. Further provisions allowed for the gradual addition of elected representatives as the population grew and stabilized. A Legislative Assembly would be officially recognized when 21 members were elected to office; at that point, members who had been appointed would be dismissed from Council.

The Act also amended or consolidated existing legislation concerning the administration of justice and a ban on liquor. New legal stipulations related to property and wills were also introduced. Perhaps most controversial was section 11, intended to establish and guarantee Protestant (mostly anglophone) and Roman Catholic (mostly francophone) religious schools in the region. Local residents were responsible for selecting the type of school they wished to establish for their children. The debate over denominational schools resulted in the North-West Schools Question and was not totally resolved until the Autonomy Bills of 1905 created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Short-Term Impact

The Act was met with mixed reviews. While there was widespread appreciation for the effort to improve administration in the region, critics were quick to highlight its deficiencies. No Métis were appointed to the first Council, despite recommendations from Lieutenant-Governor Morris and many Métis, who had been organizing popular local “councils” in displays of self-government. Others observed that there was great difficulty in actually administering such a large geographical region, which was a contributing factor in the creation of the District of Keewatin on the same day that the North-West Territories Act was proclaimed. An 1877 amendment to the Act clarified the relationship between the lieutenant-governor and the council, but did little to address the Act’s restrictions on organizing municipalities and school and electoral districts. The 1877 amendment also stipulated that both French and English be given equal status in the council and courts of the region. The provision for official bilingualism ended in 1892; thereafter, English was the sole language of government.

A post-Confederation map of Canada, c. 1889\u201395, depicting the districts of \r\nKeewatin, Assiniboia, Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as the North-West Territories and provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia.

In the decades following the passage of the Act, widespread social, political, demographic and economic changes dramatically affected the region and its residents. There was the introduction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the arrival of thousands of new settlers, the creation of towns, the onset of newspapers, and an increasingly apparent presence of government institutions, including the North-West Mounted Police. Such dramatic changes spawned a more informed public who had greater interest in government administration and the way in which society was represented. The growing population grew frustrated with the restrictions placed on their ability to build schools, begin public works projects, and form municipalities. While they pushed the authorities for more rights, Lieutenant-Governor David Laird did little to convey the serious nature of these complaints to his superiors in Ottawa. The situation began to change in the 1880s: in 1886, four seats were allocated to the entire North-West Territories for official representation in Parliament. Two years later, the council was transformed into a Legislative Assembly with 22 elected representatives. Finally, in 1897, responsible government was granted and a premier was tasked with running territorial affairs with the assistance of a Cabinet selected from the elected Assembly.


While maintaining the federal government’s authority, the North-West Territories Act of 1875 formally set in motion the long transition from Parliament-dictated governance toward democratic responsible government. The Act began the push for greater local control by the quickly growing numbers of those who actually lived in this region (see Settlement in Prairie Canada).

Further Reading

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