The Northwest Territories

The Land

The Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) lie north of the 60th parallel, above Saskatchewan, Alberta, and eastern British Columbia, and between the Yukon and Nunavut. These dimensions represent a recent change. With the creation of Nunavut on April 1, 1999, the area of the former Northwest Territories, which stretched from the Yukon east to Baffin Island and included all of the Arctic archipelago, was reduced by approximately two-thirds, from 3 426 320 km2 to 1 171 918 km2.

This is not the first time that the Northwest Territories has undergone dramatic boundary changes. At one point or another during the N.W.T.'s history, it has included all of Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon and most of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

Like the Yukon, the Northwest Territories can be divided into two broad geographical regions: the taiga, a boreal forest belt that circles the sub arctic zone; and the tundra, a rocky Arctic region where the cold climate has stunted vegetation. Remarkable features include the Great Bear Lake (31328 km2 , eighth largest in the world); the Great Slave Lake (28 568 km2, tenth largest in the world); and the Mackenzie River (Canada's longest), which flows 4241 km from the Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea.

The History

The ancestors of the Dene Indian people lived along the Mackenzie Valley in the N.W.T. 10 000 years ago. The first Inuit are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait about 5000 years ago, spreading east along the Arctic coast.

In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie discovered the Mackenzie River and followed it to its mouth at the Arctic Ocean. Fur traders soon established posts in the Mackenzie River basin. Late in the next century, missions were founded in the area. The Europeans reshaped the North, bringing with them a new economy and way of life. Communities grew around trading posts, mission schools and Royal Canadian Mounted Police stations.

In 1870, the British government transferred control of the North-Western Territory to Canada. Ten years later, the British government annexed the islands of the Arctic Archipelago, which also became part of the Territories. In 1905, both Alberta and Saskatchewan were created from the Territories. Finally in 1912, the provinces of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec were enlarged, fixing the Northwest Territories with a size and shape that remained unchanged until 1999, when Nunavut was established.

By World War II, mineral exploration and the military were playing a role in northern development, prompting a more active interest in the N.W.T. by the rest of Canada.

Government and Politics

The N.W.T. government has the same general responsibilities as provincial governments: taxation, municipal bodies, education, wildlife, health and hospital services, forest management, housing, social services and economic development. It lacks jurisdiction over land and resource administration, including control over the pace and scale of resource development and subsurface water rights.

The issue of settling Aboriginal land claims in the N.W.T. emerged in the 1970s. In 1984, a final agreement was reached with the Inuvialuit of the western Arctic; it provided some 2500 people with 91 000 km2 of land, financial compensation, social development funding, hunting rights and a greater role in wildlife management, conservation and environmental protection.

In 1992, the Gwich'in settled a comprehensive land claim that provided 22 422 km2 of land in the Yukon; subsurface rights; a share in the resource royalties derived from the Mackenzie River Valley; tax-free capital transfers; hunting rights; a greater role in the management of wildlife, land and the environment; and the right of first refusal on a variety of activities related to wildlife.

The year 1993 saw the conclusion of the Nunavut land claims agreement. It was the largest land claim ever settled in Canada. The agreement gave Inuit control of more than 350 000 km2 of land (of which 36 000 km2 include mineral rights), more than $14 billion over 14 years, and guaranteed participation in decisions on land and resource management. In April 1999, according to the agreement, the former Northwest Territories was divided, creating the new territory of Nunavut.

The People

The present population of the N.W.T. is approximately 40 000. Dene, Inuvialuit and Métis make up 48%, non-Aboriginals about 52%. Most live in small communities; Yellowknife, the capital, has a population of more than 15 000.

The Economy

The economy relies heavily on resource industries subject to wide fluctuations in world markets. Mining is by far the largest private industrial sector of the N.W.T. economy. Oil and gas exploration and development are also important.

The Aboriginal peoples' traditional subsistence activities--fishing, hunting and trapping--also have an impact on the N.W.T. economy. Sports fishing and big-game hunting play a small role as well. Commercial fishery development in the N.W.T.--freshwater and saltwater--is being encouraged. Fur harvesting continues to be very important, supplementing the income of many Aboriginal families. Recently, tourism has become increasingly important. The N.W.T. offers a variety of landscapes of great natural beauty, conductive to fishing, wildlife observation and other outdoor activities.

The settling of northern land claims sets the stage for increased economic activity in which all can share and have a voice. However, development, which is welcome and necessary for economic prosperity, will need to be managed so as not to threaten the fragile Arctic ecosystem and the traditional lifestyles of the northern peoples.