UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The attitudes and policies of the federal government towards Canada's Northern Territories: 1870-1930 Bovevy, John A.


In the year 1967 the Northwest Territories extend from the 60th parallel of north latitude to the North Pole, and from the eastern boundary of the Yukon Territory to the eastern shores of Ellesmere Island, to within sight of the Danish colony of Greenland. Since 1912 the perimeters of the Territories have remained unchanged. This thesis is an attempt to ascertain the origins of the Northwest Territories as they are presently constituted. It enquires into the reasons for which and the manner by which the Dominion of Canada acquired such a vast extent of arctic and sub-arctic land. It attempts to explain the origin of Canadian concepts and practices of territorial government and how they were applied, or not applied, to the northern extremities of the country. One of the principal expectations of the Confederation of 1867 was the expansion of the new Dominion over the whole of the interior of British North America. Canada consciously aspired to become a transcontinental state; she became the second largest arctic state on the globe unwittingly. From the moment of her national birth Canada intended to extend herself to the Pacific Ocean and forestall the expansion of the United States of America north of the 49th parallel. Canadians, particularly in the Province of Ontario, wanted to secure the fertile plains between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes in order to provide space for the expansion of their own surplus population, for an increase in agricultural production and a market for eastern manufactures. In 1870 Canada took possession of Rupert's Land and the North-western Territory in the hope of attaining these objectives. However neither the people nor the government of Canada had any interest in or knowledge of those regions of the Dominion's territorial acquisition lying north of the Great Plains. Canada made no provision for its immediate control or for its future development. The Dominion took title to the northern extremities of the North American continent simply because they came to her already united with the transcontinental band of land which she did want. She was content to own them, and to ignore them. Sixty years elapsed before Canada’s title to the islands of the arctic archipelago secured international recognition from rival states. Indeed Canada only obtained ownership of those islands because she feared foreign encirclement, particularly encirclement by the United States of America, and when threatened made belated efforts to secure them for herself. Between the years 1870 and 1905 the prairie regions of the original Northwest Territories experienced rapid settlement, and evolved through a Canadian form of territorial government to become the two provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. In outward form Canadian territorial government was much influenced by the example of territorial government in the United States, but in essential spirit Canadian policy towards the Northwest Territories remained close to the model of British colonial government. It was authoritarian and centralized. The federal government retained tight control over every aspect of territorial administration. Ottawa distrusted local elected representatives and reserved to herself supervision of regional law-making. The Northwest Territories long remained virtual colonies of the Government of Canada, in fact if not in name. Until the sudden eruption of the Klondike Gold Rush in the years 1897-98, Canada gave no thought to the organization of territories lying north of the Great Plains. She believed that the north could wait, at least until the prairies were settled and fully developed. The Yukon upset the schedule of national priorities. In the new Yukon Territory an arbitrary "colonial" government was established under the strict and direct supervision of Ottawa. Eventually the "safety value" of an elected council was installed, but the federal government still retained complete control of administration and the management of all natural resources. It has continued to do so until 1967. Once the problems of the Yukon had been controlled, the Territory could safely be left to languish into a derelict mining camp, for the federal government still had no interest in the development of permanent settlements north of the 60th parallel. It might only regret that the Yukon had not declined into oblivion, so that an expensive territorial government might be abolished completely. After the establishment of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905 and the northward extension of the boundaries of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec in 1912, Canada was content to permit the residual Northwest Territories to remain a deserted and forgotten national attic. The government might be striving to extend that attic to the North Pole, but it had no intention of furnishing it with meaningful government if the expense could be avoided. No agent of government could be found permanently stationed anywhere in the Northwest Territories until the North West Mounted Police entered them in 1903, and no civil government was established north of the 60th parallel until 1921. In that year the Department of the Interior opened its first offices in the Mackenzie valley in expectation of an Oil Rush which might rival the Klondike Gold Rush. No Oil Rush occured. Nevertheless the foundation stones of civil government in the Northwest Territories were laid in 1921 when a territorial council modeled on the Keewatin Council of 1876 was conjured into reality after sixteen years of only theoretical existance. Laws suitable for the north could at last be made. The Northwest Territories was at last equipped to set sail on the course on which it has continued to the present day, albeit often becalmed, occasionally beset by storms, and usually uncertain of its eventual destination. In September 1967 the territorial capital moved from Ottawa, Ontario to the mining town of Yellowknife on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake. A new era seems to be dawning for the residual Territories which now have reached the constitutional position of the "old" Northwest Territories between 1882 and 1888. If greater territorial autonomy seems likely to be gained in the future, it still remains likely that the influence of 97 years of federal attitudes and policies towards the northern territories will be felt for many years yet to come.

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