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Territorial Assembly

North-West Council in session, 1884. At the head of the table is Lieutenant-Governor Dewdney.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B490

In 1905, Saskatchewan and Alberta were recognized as separate provinces under the Dominion of Canada. Full provincial status for Saskatchewan came about after a lengthy stretch of political wrangling over a geographic region known as the North-West Territories. When the Canadian government purchased Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870 (see Rupert’s Land Purchase), the Territories consisted of the District of Keewatin, which was north and east of Manitoba, and later to be divided into Assiniboine, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Athabasca. The area was marked for settlement, and the population began to expand as homesteaders moved into the region.

The federal government appointed a provisional government in 1869, with a Lieutenant-Governor and Council who settled in Winnipeg. After the North-West Territories Act passed in 1875, the appointed Council governed from the territorial capitals: first from Battleford, and then from Regina. Three stipendiary magistrates were also appointed. The federal government’s agenda was to see to it that the prairie regions were developed according to national interests and needs. Electoral districts were defined on the basis of a population of 1,000 adults in an area not exceeding 1,000 square miles. If these conditions were met, municipal organizations could then tax the inhabitants. Schools districts grew from the tax base, with religious minorities setting up separate school systems.

In 1888, an amendment to the Act allowed for an elected Territorial Assembly consisting of twenty-five members. Four members were appointed to oversee matters of finance, with jurisdiction held by the new governor, Joseph Royal. F.W.G. Haultain, one of the four appointees, was later to lead the Territories into becoming provinces; he found himself in opposition to government agents like Minister of the Interior Edgar Dewdney, who opposed the Assembly’s demands for autonomy. Although the Territorial Assembly had some power, the Territories remained under the control of the federal government. Ottawa negotiated Indian treaties, controlled all lands and resources, and controlled all expenditures through a grant system. Although the Territories were now equally represented, the amendment did not allow for an executive body that might negotiate on their behalf with the federal government. The Territorial Assembly counseled the federal government to implement the amendment of 1891; with this amendment, the Assembly would be able to use the French language during its proceedings, have say over property law, determine electoral boundaries, and control the use of intoxicants in the Territories. The Lieutenant-Governor, for the first time, could now appropriate funding from Parliament on the advice of the Territorial Assembly. The Assembly felt that this latest amendment was a huge step towards autonomy.

Western farmers constantly petitioned the federal government to address high tariffs, rising freight rates, and meager grants that did not meet the needs for better roads, schools, bridges, and other infrastructure. The districts were divided between the reformers who wanted local control and the loyalists who wanted to remain under federal jurisdiction. In 1897, the Territorial Assembly was granted “responsible government” with another amendment to the North-West Territories Act. F.W.G. Haultain, who was asked to remain with the new government, let the federal government know that local taxation would not solve their fiscal woes: he felt that the immigrants needed for the region would go elsewhere if the taxation system was too demanding. The Territorial Assembly lobbied the federal government for the same subsidies the provinces were receiving.

On May 2, 1900, the Territorial Assembly formally approached the federal government to ask for provincial status. Meanwhile, the geographic boundaries between the Territories and Manitoba were changing. Premier Roblin of Manitoba and Premier Haultain of the Territories offered inducements for settlers to remain in each area; promises of railroad and debt-free farming were made to entice settlement. There were also arguments about separate schools for Catholic students, which became an issue within the argument for autonomy. While Manitoba had been granted a separate school system in 1870, the provision was disallowed in 1890. The Territories, however, still retained the dual separate/public system granted to them under the North-West Territories Act of 1875. The sentiment of the day indicated that support for a dual school system was situated in the Territories, while Manitoba was against public taxes supporting a religious agenda. Wilfrid Laurier was himself a Catholic, and it appeared that Ottawa would be in the middle of a serious rift in western politics. By 1904, Laurier decreed that separate schools must be a guaranteed right in any new provinces. The Territorial Assembly, led by Premier Haultain, continued its fight for autonomy until Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces in 1905.

Elizabeth Mooney

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Further Reading

Thomas, L.H. 1970. “The North-West Territories, 1870-1905,” Canadian Historical Association Booklets 26: 10-17.
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