The history of the Northwest Territories begins with the population of the region by First Nations peoples, and proceeds through the transformation of it into provinces and territories of the nation of Canada, including the modern administrative unit of the Northwest Territories. When Europeans settlers began to divide the continent, the Northwest Territories included much of the sparsely populated regions of what is now western Canada. Over time, the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba were formed out of the territories. In 1898, the Yukon territory became a separate entity and in 1999 Nunavut was formed from the eastern section.
Long before the Europeans arrived, Inuit and First Nations peoples inhabited the land area which became the Northwest Territories. Native Inuit included the Mackenzie, Copper, Caribou and Central nations. There were also many nations when the Europeans first arrived, among them the Yellowknives, Chipewyan, Sekani, Beaver, Nahanni, Dogrib and Slavey.
Martin Frobisher's expeditions in the 1570s were the first recorded visits to the Northwest Territories by a European. In 1610, Henry Hudson, while looking for the Northwest Passage, landed briefly on the western shore of the bay that bears his name. His discovery opened the interior of the continent to further exploration. Other early explorers include Luke Foxe, John Davis, Robert Bylot, Thomas Button, George Weymouth, Thomas James and William Baffin.
In 1670, King Charles II granted a charter to the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudsons Bay, known as the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). It included the Hudson's Bay watershed.
By the 1700s, European trade in the Northwest Territories was dominated by two fur-trading companies: the Hudson's Bay Company, based in London, England, and the North West Company based in Montréal. Fur trade explorer Peter Pond lead the way through the Methye Portage into the vast territory of the Northwest where the rivers flowed North rather than East. In 1771, Samuel Hearne was the first European to reach the shore of the Arctic Ocean by an overland route via the Coppermine River. Further west and eighteen years later, in 1789, Alexander Mackenzie reached the Arctic Ocean. The river he navigated to get there now bears his name.
York Factory served as the Hudson's Bay Company's headquarters. The HBC depended on the furs coming to York Factory. The North West Company competed with the HBC by traveling throughout the territory obtaining furs as they did so. Some of these trader explorers kept journals and had them published. Public interest developed as a result.
As the Europeans increased their presence, they involved the First Nations as guides and suppliers of furs. The Chipewyan acted as middlemen. They brought to York Factory the furs of the western tribes. The Cree, Chipewyan, Beaver and Yellowknives obtained firearms. With this new advantage, they dominated their Athapaskan neighbors, i.e. the Slavey, Sekani, and Dogrib peoples.
In the early 1800s, perhaps 1810, the Northwest Company established a post at Tulita (Fort Norman) at the junction of the Mackenzie and Great Bear Rivers. The site changed several times but the community of Tulita is located on the original site today.
Franklin's Coppermine expedition of 1819–1822 had as its goal the exploration of the northern coast of Canada, which was accessed by way of the Coppermine River. The British expedition was organised by the Royal Navy as part of its attempt to discover and map the Northwest Passage. It was the first of three Arctic expeditions to be led by John Franklin, and also included George Back and John Richardson, both of whom would become significant Arctic explorers in their own right.
Franklin's fateful third expedition began in 1845 and was never heard from again. A massive search followed, at first finding little trace of the expedition but resulting in the mapping of much of the Arctic coastline. It was eventually learned that Franklin had died in 1847, and the remains of the expedition's two ships were finally found in 2014 and 2016.
In 1821, the Northwest Company and the Hudson's Bay Company merged under the name of the latter. By 1825, Sir George Simpson advanced from the junior governor in charge of the company's Northern Department to be the head of this new company. Simpson traveled throughout the Northwest. For forty years he led the company. For most of that time, he made at least one major journey by canoe every year.
George Back, a British naval officer, naturalist and artist, served under John Franklin in his first expedition to the Arctic in 1818. On Franklin's inland Coppermine expedition of 1819–1822, Back was responsible for all the surveying and chart making. Then on the Mackenzie River expedition in 1824–1826, Back was promoted to lieutenant and then to commander.
The territories were purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company.
On July 15, 1870, Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory were ceded to Canada, and became the North-West Territories; a small square of this was made into the province of Manitoba. On July 20, 1871, British Columbia joined as a province.
The first Northwest (stylized as "North-West") Territories government sat in 1872 after the Temporary North-West Council was appointed.
The Arctic Archipelago was transferred from the United Kingdom to Canada in 1880. The Northwest Territories hit its peak in size.
The first territorial election took place in 1881.
In 1886, the District of Keewatin's southwestern border was adjusted. In 1889, the disputed area between Manitoba and Ontario was generally granted to Ontario, with some going to the District of Keewatin, and Manitoba getting none.
French was abolished as an official language in 1892.
In June 1899, negotiation began on Treaty No. 8, which covered 840,000 square kilometers in the Northwest Territory. It was an agreement between the Canadian Government and the Dene groups in the area in question; in return for their willingness to share their land with non-Natives, the Dene would receive medical and educational assistance, as well as treaty payments. The Canadian Government and the various Dene groups, including Yellowknives and Tłįchǫ under chief Drygeese with headmen Benaiyah and Sek'eglinan, signed the treaty in 1900 at Fort Resolution (called by the Tłįchǫ Įndàà) . After the signing, the group that signed the treaty was called the "Yellowknife B Band" (Helm, 7: 1994). At that point in history, Treaty No. 8 was the largest land settlement the Canadian Government had ever made (PWNHC, Historical).
Sometime in 1901, the borders of Yukon Territory were changed, gaining area from the North-West Territories. Alberta and Saskatchewan separated from the territories in 1905. Although the District of Keewatin was given back to the territories, the population dropped from approx 160,000 to 17,000, of which 16,000 were aboriginal and had no right to vote under Canadian law. The government of the Northwest Territories defaulted back to its 1870 constitutional status, and once again came under federal control, governed from Ottawa.
On May 15, 1912, parts of the North-West Territories were given to Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Also note that in 1912, the official name dropped the hyphen, changing to "Northwest Territories".
Twenty years after Treaty No. 8 was signed, oil was discovered in the Mackenzie River Valley. Upon the discovery, the Canadian Government proposed another treaty that would clear the way for miners and development of the area. The treaty was greatly debated, as the Natives did not want to lose their right to hunt, fish, gather, and trap in the area. They also opposed being "confined to Indian reserves." Many Dene felt that Treaty No. 8 was not honoured by the Canadian Government, and some were afraid that this treaty would turn out similarly. Nevertheless, Treaty No. 11 was signed by the Tłįchǫ trading chief Monfwi in the summer of 1921. The Tłįchǫ groups that signed this treaty were then known as the "Dog Rib Rae Band" (Helm, 7: 1994), constituting the majority of the Tłįchǫ population. Both Treaty No. 8 and Treaty No. 11 overlap in several of their boundaries, and continue to cause conflict between the two separate treaty bands (nowadays two First Nations).
In 1925, based upon the Sector Principle, Canada became the first country to extend its maritime boundaries northward to the North Pole. The Northwest Territories gained in size to 3.3 million km2. This was about one third of Canada's landmass.
In the summer of 1935, nearly 1000 men grouped into 188 surveying parties covered a wide range of Canada looking for precious minerals. The most valuable discovery was made in the Yellowknife district where nearly 3,000 square miles of good gold prospecting territory was located. This brought about the town of Yellowknife. Thirty-two years later, when the Government of the Northwest Territories came North from Ottawa, Yellowknife became the new capital.
During World War II, between 1942 and 1946, forty thousand American military and civilian personnel came to the Canadian Northwest; invited by the Canadian government. Plans called for the Alaska Highway to connect Edmonton, Alberta with Fairbanks, Alaska and for a pipeline to run from the oil fields of Norman Wells to the Pacific Coast. Major work commenced. Canada's Northwest infrastructure developed quickly and the social impact of 40,000 military people affected lives throughout.
Brigadier General James O'Connor, the military officer in charge of building the highway, described the difficulty of the work. "Engineer troops worked 10–12 hours a day through temperatures that ranged down to 70 below, hacking their way through forests, plunging into icy streams in life-preservers to sink bridge pilings, sweating through steaming summer days amid plagues of mosquitoes and 'no-see-ums,' to push the road through."
Elections returned in 1951, but rather than being fully elected body, the Councils and Assemblies were a mix of elected and appointed members.
In 1967, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the Honourable Arthur Laing, announced that Yellowknife would be the capital of the Northwest Territories. On September 18, 1967, the Government of the Northwest Territories relocated from Ottawa to Yellowknife. Commissioner Stuart Milton Hodgson, and eighty-one employees of the Government of the Northwest Territories, arrived in Yellowknife on board a chartered DC-7.
In 1975, the territorial government once again became a fully elected body.
By 1961, the federal government devolved responsibility for place naming to the provinces. But not in the territories. In 1984, the Canadian Government agreed to transfer the responsibility for naming places to the territories.
In April 1982, a majority of Northwest Territories residents voted in favour of a division of the area, and the federal government gave a conditional agreement seven months later. After a long series of land claim negotiations between the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the federal government (begun earlier in 1976), an agreement was reached in September 1992. In June 1993, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act were passed by the Canadian Parliament, and the transition to the new territory of Nunavut was completed on April 1, 1999.