North-West Territories Act

In 1869, Canada’s federal government purchased Rupert’s Land (see Rupert’s Land Purchase), providing for the “temporary Government of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory”; the corresponding Act placed local decision-making in the hands of a Lieutenant-Governor who could appoint a council of seven to fifteen persons. In 1875 the Act was consolidated and amended. It described in more detail the powers of the government and also reduced the council to five members. The territorial government had the authority to pass ordinances relating to regional matters such as roads, inheritance, public health, and alcohol control; ultimately, though, any ordinance passed by the territorial government could be amended or even vacated by the federal government. The 1875 Act also paved the way for a future Legislative Assembly of twenty-one members; electoral constituencies could be established when regions not exceeding an area of 1,000 square miles contained sufficient population.

In 1888, the Act was amended to provide for an advisory council of four elected members as a form of Cabinet alongside the Lieutenant-Governor; in 1891 this advisory council was replaced by an executive committee. Sir Frederick Haultain, who became the first president of that committee, is often called the first Premier of the region. By 1897, a Cabinet replaced the executive committee and the elected Legislature also secured control of revenue spending. As a result, the North-West Territories then had a responsible government nearly equivalent to that of any province. From 1869 until 1905, however, the paramount issues for the region were regulated wholly by the federal government. These issues included Indian treaty negotiations, railway construction, immigration, and deeding land to settlers. Regarding the territorial government’s share of power, historian L.H. Thomas described it as “a system in which the territorial government would not be permitted to obstruct federal authority and policy.” The North-West Territories Act ceased to apply to Saskatchewan after the federal Saskatchewan Act of 1905, but it remained in force thereafter for the Territories north of the 60th parallel.

Gerald Heinrichs

Further Reading

Herbert, T.L. 1956. The Struggle for Responsible Government in the Northwest Territories, 1870-1897. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Lingard, C.C. 1946. Territorial Government in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.