History of Northwest Territories capital cities

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American History

Northwest Territories capitals
City Years
Fort Garry 1870 - 1876
Fort Livingstone 1876 - 1877
Battleford 1877 - 1883
Regina 1883 - 1905
Ottawa 1905 - 1967
Fort Smith 1911 - 1967
Yellowknife 1967 - present

The history of Northwest Territories capital cities begins with the purchase of the Territories by Canada from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869 and includes a varied and often difficult evolution. Northwest Territories is unique amongst the Canadian province or territory in that it has had seven capital cities in its history. The territory has changed the seat of government for numerous reasons, including civil conflict, development of infrastructure, and revised territorial boundaries.

The result of these changes has been a long and complex road to responsible government. Effectively providing services and representation for the population has been a particular challenge for the Territories' government, a task often complicated by the region's vast geographic area. A small number of communities in Northwest Territories have unsuccessfully tried to become the capital over the years. The territory has had the seat of government outside of its territorial boundaries twice in its history. The only other political division in Canada without a seat of government inside the territorial boundaries was the defunct District of Keewatin that existed from 1876 until 1905.

The term "capital" refers to cities that have served as home for the Legislative Assembly of Northwest Territories, the legislative branch of Northwest Territories government. In Canada, it is customary for provincial and territorial level government to have the civil service administer from the same city as the legislative branch and executive branch. The Northwest Territories, however, had an administrative capital and a legislative capital officially exist between 1911 and 1967. This is the only province or territory in Canadian history to have had such an arrangement.

In the early 1980's the territory began a process that would see it divide itself. A new capital was needed for the brand new territory of Nunavut created out of the eastern half of the Northwest Territories as they existed from 1911 to 1999. Lessons were learned from the past changes in the seat of power, and a referendum was put to the territorial residents.


Fort Garry, Manitoba (1870 - 1876)

Fort Garry in the early 1870s
Fort Garry in the early 1870s

The Government of Canada purchased the North-Western Territory and Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869. The territory was sizable, adding most of the land area that shapes modern day Canada.

In 1869, under the Rupert's Land Act, William McDougall went to Fort Garry, Manitoba to establish formal governance over the newly purchased land. The take-over was delayed until 1870 because of the Red River Rebellion. Louis Riel, leader of the rebellion, negotiated the partition of a section of land in the new territory to create the Province of Manitoba. The rebellion had been started by residents in the Red River Valley within present-day Manitoba who opposed the transfer of the territory to the Canadian government.

In 1870, the newly created province of Manitoba, and the rest of the Northwest Territories entered the Canadian confederation. The two jurisdictions remained partially co-joined: under the Temporary Government Act, 1870, a Temporary North-West Council was appointed from members of the new Manitoba Legislative Assembly and the leader of the territorial government was the Manitoba Lieutenant Governor. The Governor and Council were mandated to govern under the Territories through the Manitoba Act.

Canada under 1870 boundaries. The territories are in red, and Manitoba is the small white box.
Canada under 1870 boundaries. The territories are in red, and Manitoba is the small white box.

Fort Garry served as the seat of government for both jurisdictions. Fort Garry itself in the 1870's was actually two distinct settlements, the main settlement was known as Upper Fort Garry, and Lower Fort Garry 32 kilometers downstream on the Red River.

The temporary government sat for the first time in 1872 and was renewed by federal legislation each year until 1875. The federal government decided to pick a new location to form a new government from within the boundaries of the Northwest Territories and appoint a new council and a new Lieutenant Governor to lead the territories. The move of the government and newly appointed council and new Lieutenant Governor would take power in 1876.

After the territorial government moved from Fort Garry, the city evolved to become modern day Winnipeg, Manitoba. Winnipeg continues to serve as the seat of government for the province of Manitoba. The city also briefly served as a seat of government for the now defunct District of Keewatin territory from 1876 to 1905. Lower Fort Garry was declared a national historical site.

Fort Livingstone, Northwest Territories (1876 - 1877)

Sketch of Fort Livingstone circa 1877
Sketch of Fort Livingstone circa 1877

In 1875, a permanent governing council for the territories was appointed to take effect on October 7, 1876. The new seat of government would be called Fort Livingstone, in modern-day Saskatchewan, just outside the Manitoba border. A new permanent government was established to administer the territory directly for the first time under the new Northwest Territories Act 1875 and the Temporary North-West Council was dissolved. Fort Livingstone was more of a small frontier outpost than a capital city, and the site was only chosen as a temporary measure.

The newly created North-West Mounted Police, Canada's national police force would setup their headquarters briefly at Fort Livingstone in 1875. The Swan River Barracks North-West Mounted Police Barracks would serve as as the territorial assembly for legislative council sessions while the fort was the capital.

In 1877, Northwest Territories Lieutenant Governor David Laird ordered the outpost to be packed up. The seat of government was to be moved out to Battleford to meet up with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which was under construction.

Fort Livingstone was totally destroyed by a prairie fire in 1884. The nearest modern town to the Fort Livingstone site is Pelly, Saskatchewan, four kilometers to the south. The fort is sometimes referred to as Fort Pelly or Swan River. The Fort Livingstone site is marked with a plaque as a Saskatchewan provincial heritage site and contains no resident population.

Battleford, Northwest Territories (1877 - 1883)

Government House in Battleford, the first permanent Northwest Territories legislature building.
Government House in Battleford, the first permanent Northwest Territories legislature building.

The Northwest Territories government moved to Battleford in 1877 on the order of the Lieutenant Governor. Battleford was supposed to be the permanent capital of the Territories. The city was chosen because the town was expected to be linked with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The government in Battleford would see significant milestones towards attaining responsible government. For the first time, the territory would see democratically elected members joined the appointed members in the assembly. Elections in the territory became a reality after the passage of the Northwest Territories election ordinance 1880. The first electoral districts were created by royal proclamations issued the order of the Lieutenant Governor. The first election took place in 1881.

Battleford hosted the first official royal visit in western Canada, when the Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise Caroline Alberta toured the territories in 1881.

The first Northwest Territories legislature building, and residence for the Lieutenant Governor named "NWT Government House", was completed and used by the territorial government until 1883. After the government moved the building stood as a historical site until it was destroyed in a fire in 2003.

After consultation with Canadian Pacific Railway officials, Lieutenant Governor Edgar Dewdney made the decision to move the capital to Regina, also in present-day Saskatchewan, in June 1882. The decision to move the capital was highly controversial with the public because Edgar Dewdney owned real estate in Regina. He was accused of having conflicted interests between his private affairs, and the needs of the government.

Regina, Northwest Territories (1883 - 1905)

Members of the Legislative Assembly stand outside the legislature in Regina circa 1886.
Members of the Legislative Assembly stand outside the legislature in Regina circa 1886.

Regina was confirmed as the new territorial capital on March 27, 1883, and Edgar Dewdney ordered that the government be moved south to meet the railway in Regina. Construction of a new legislature began. In Regina, the government continued to grow as the size of the settlement increased rapidly. The legislature had the most sitting members in Northwest Territories history after the fifth general election in 1902.

The government in Regina struggled to deliver services to the vast territory. The influx of settlers and responsibility for the Klondike, as well as constant fighting with the Federal government over limited legislative powers and minimal revenue collection, hampered the effectiveness of government. The government during this period slowly released powers to the elected members. In 1897 after control of the executive council was ceded to elected members from the Lieutenant-Governors, a short-lived period of party politics evolved that challenged the consensus model of government that had been used since 1870.

The remaining parts of Northwest Territories are highlighted in red, after the 1905 boundary changes.
The remaining parts of Northwest Territories are highlighted in red, after the 1905 boundary changes.

The territorial government under the leadership of Premier Frederick Haultain struck a deal to bring provincial powers to the territories, with the federal Government of Canada in early 1905. This led to the creation of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta from the southernmost and most populous areas of the territory. The rest of the Northwest Territories territory continued to exist, reduced the to its northern, lightly populated hinterland.

The remaining parts of the territory fell back to 1870's constitutional status, with a severely limited population, and fell under control of the federal government. A new council was convened in Ottawa, Ontario to deal with the region.

The remains of the Territorial Legislature Building were declared a historical site by the Saskatchewan government and parts of the building remain standing to this day. The territorial government would not have another permanent legislature of its own design until 1993. After 1905 Regina continues to serve as capital for the province of Saskatchewan.

Ottawa, Ontario legislative capital (1905 - 1967)

Thousands of miles from the Territories, the government was run from Sparks Street in Ottawa for 62 years.
Thousands of miles from the Territories, the government was run from Sparks Street in Ottawa for 62 years.

In 1905, the seat of government was moved to Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada. This change was made when Northwest Territories defaulted back to the 1870 constitutional status after Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved from the territory. At the time of this change, there were very few towns left in the territory with any significant population. The remaining non-Inuit population was around 1,000. Inuit had no status under Canadian law, and were not yet settled in towns or villages.

In the period without a sitting council, the government of the Territories was still active. A small civil service force was sent to Fort Smith to set the town up as the new administrative capital in 1911. A small budget was still provided by the federal government, and Commissioner Frederick D. White administered the territories day to day operations during that period. During this 16 year lapse in legislative government, no new bills were passed, and the Territories and its population were severely neglected.

The first session of the new council was called to order in 1921, a full 16 years after the government was dissolved in Regina. This government contained not one person resident in the Territories. The council during this period was primarily composed of high-level civil servants who lived in Ottawa. The first person to sit on the council since 1905 who actually resided from within the Territories was John G. McNiven who was appointed in 1947.

The council eventually grew more sensitive to the needs of the territory, and democracy returned to the territories in the sixth general election in 1951. After the election, the council was something of a vagabond body, with alternating sittings in Ottawa, and various communities in Northwest Territories. The council held meetings in school gymnasiums, community halls, board rooms, or any suitable infrastructure. The council brought the speakers chair and mace, traditional artifacts common to Westminster parliaments with them as they traveled.

When the sessions were held in Ottawa, the council sat in an office building on Sparks Street. The Northwest Territories government continues to hold an office in Ottawa to this day. In 1965, the federal government would strike a commission was set up to determine a new home for the government and the future of the territory. The seat of government would move back inside the territories to Yellowknife, after it was selected capital in 1967.

Fort Smith, Northwest Territories administrative capital (1911–1967)

Fort Smith in the 1920s
Fort Smith in the 1920s

Fort Smith became the official administration and transportation hub for the Northwest Territories in 1911. The marked the first services provided by the territorial government in 6 years. The first services included an agent from the Department of Indian Affairs, a medical doctor, and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police station.

Fort Smith was chosen to house the civil service because of its geographical location and state of development. The community was one of the few that had steamboat service from the railheads in Alberta and access to the vast waterways in the territory. The community was the easiest for the government to access, and the most well developed community, closest to Ottawa.

Fort Smith housed the civil service working in the Territories officially until 1967. The town continued to host the civil service after Yellowknife was picked as capital, because government infrastructure was not yet in place in at the time.

Fort Smith was considered as a potential capital by the Carrothers Commission. The commission considered Fort Smith based on the fact that the town already had the civil service and transportation links.

The commission ultimately decided upon Yellowknife as it was closer to the geographical centre under the old boundaries of the Northwest Territories then any other settlement. The commission also found a general consensus among territorial residents that Yellowknife would be preferred as a potential site to be the territorial capital. A secondary reason for choosing Yellowknife over Fort Smith, is because they wanted the new capital city to be more then just a government town.

Carrothers Commission

The "Advisory Commission on the Development of Government in the Northwest Territories," more commonly known as the Carrothers Commission, marked a significant turning point in modern Northwest Territories history.

The Commission was struck by the Government of Canada in 1965 to evaluate and recommend changes to the Northwest Territories to deal with an array of outstanding issues regarding self-government in the north. One of the more visible and lasting effects of the commission was to choose a new home for the territorial government. The commission for the first time, the eastern Arctic was to have a voice in territorial government, as the commission recommended allowing eastern residents to vote for members of the Legislative Assembly.

In prior years, the decision to change the seat of government had always been made without consulting Northwest Territories residents. Edgar Dewdney, for example, who made the decision to change the capital from Battleford to Regina, faced controversy because he owned property in Regina. After the territorial government moved to Ottawa, the government was often resented for being so far away.

Commission leader Alfred Carrothers and his team spent two years visiting nearly every community in the territory and consulting with residents, community leaders, business people and territorial politicians. The feedback collected from two years' worth of consultation was used to decide on the location of the new capital.

The commission investigated and considered five communities for the capital. Hay River, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Inuvik and Yellowknife. The Commission chose Yellowknife because of its central location, transportation links and industrial base, as well as residents' preferences. Most people in the Territories believed that Fort Smith would win since it already housed the Territories' civil service.

After the selection of Yellowknife as the capital, many residents in the eastern Arctic continued to feel unrepresented by the new government, and many movements and groups were formed to remedy the situation. The result would be the 1982 Northwest Territories Division Plebiscite; the territory voted to divide itself into east and west. Soon after, debate arose on the location of the new capitals.

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, current capital (1967 - present)

Downtown Yellowknife
Downtown Yellowknife

Yellowknife became the capital on January 18, 1967 after the Carrothers commission completed its intensive study to decide the future political direction of the north.

In 1967 Yellowknife was not yet truly ready to be the capital, and would see a slow development of government infrastructure. The Legislative Assembly continued to exist without a permanent home and held legislative sessions all over the territory until the new legislature was built in 1993.

Territory residents in the eastern half quickly felt unrepresented by the Yellowknife-based government. Pressure for new representation for the east began to divide the territory. In 1980 the legislature passed a motion agreeing to split the territory in half. A non-binding plebiscite based on the motion was put to the people in 1982, and the majority of citizens concurred. The territorial government took the results to the federal government for approval to begin working on a framework to carve the territory once again.

The modernday government has matured in Yellowknife to become the most to provide the most effective representation of constituents since the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The civil service has been effectively consolidated into the city of Yellowknife; and has regained control of territorial elections from Elections Canada. Education is now under the jurisdiction of the territorial government and the territory has most powers afforded to the provinces. There has even talk by the Federal government of the territories gaining provincial status in the future.

The Northwest Territories government moved into a newly-constructed legislature building on November 17, 1993. The new legislature was the first built specifically for the Northwest Territories government since the government sat in Regina. It featured themes derived from the Inuit culture, which was also a first.

NWT voters pick a new capital for Nunavut

The need to pick a capital city for Nunavut came about after residents of the territory voted to divide the Northwest Territories in half in a 1982 plebiscite. A significant and divisive debate took place for many years between all levels of government on which community would become the new seat of government. The idea of a plebiscite to choose the capital came after years of wrangling, indecision, and inaction by government officials.

Former Members of Parliament Jack Anawak and Ron Irwin spearheaded the effort to get a plebiscite going as early as January 1994. The plebiscite was met with resistance by the Nunavut Implementation Commission. In September 1995 Irwin and Anawak scheduled a hastily planned closed-door meeting between federal and territorial officials and bureaucrats. After the meeting, Ron Irwin announced the intention to hold a plebiscite, stunning the territory.

The plebiscite was held in the parts of the Northwest Territories that were to become the new territory of Nunavut. The capital plebiscite was the third in a series of four plebiscites that lead to the creation of Nunavut.

The race for to become capital started with three contenders: Cambridge Bay, Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet. Cambridge Bay dropped out of the race early on and campaigned for decentralized government for Nunavut without a designated capital city instead. Iqaluit was the favorite from day one, since it contained the largest voter base.

On December 11, 1995 polls opened for the plebiscite. Ballots from the 1995 Nunavut Capital Plebiscite were all counted at one location so that individual polling station results could never be released and create animosity between communities vying to become capital. Iqaluit defeated Rankin Inlet in a narrow victory.

Retrieved from " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Northwest_Territories_capital_cities"