The Northwest Territories includes most of northern Canada – all the area north of the provinces and and between the Yukon and Nunavut. It stretches 3,560 kilometres to the North Pole and 4,256 kilometres from east to west, covering 1,171,918 square kilometres or more than 12 percent of the total area of the country.
The Northwest Territories can be divided into two broad geographical regions: The taiga is the boreal forest belt that circles the subarctic zone below the “treeline.” The tundra is a rocky Arctic region where the cold climate has stunted vegetation. NWT includes Great Bear Lake (31,328 sq km, eighth largest in the world); Great Slave Lake (28,568 sq km, tenth largest in the world) and the Mackenzie River (4,241 km long, Canada’s longest).
The ancestors of the Dene Indian people lived in the Northwest Territories some 10,000 years ago, and were joined by the Inuit who are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait about 5,000 years ago. European expeditions in the 1570s were the first recorded visits to the Northwest Territories. Fur trading began in the late 1680s and whaling in the 1800s, starting a process of substantial change for the Inuit. Stable communities grew around trading posts, mission schools and Royal Canadian Mounted Police stations. In 1870, the British government transferred control of the North-Western Territory to Canada (then everything north and west of Manitoba). In 1905, both Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces and in 1912 Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec were enlarged to their current northern boundaries. In 1999, the Northwest Territories were divided in two. The eastern two-thirds of the territory is known as Nunavut, which means “Our Land” in the Inuit language of Inuktitut. The new territory is the result of a land settlement and Aboriginal rights agreement between the Inuit and the Canadian Government.
The Northwest Territories is the only place in Canada where over half of the population is Aboriginal. The present population of the N.W.T. is approximately 45,000 (2019). Dene, Inuvialuit and Métis make up 48%, non-Aboriginals about 52%. Most live in small communities; Yellowknife, the capital, has a population of 20,000 (2019).
Northwest Territories Economy
The economy relies heavily on resource industries subject to wide fluctuations in world markets. Mining is by far the largest private sector industry, with major mines for ore including gold, uranium and recently diamonds. Oil and gas exploration and development in the Mackenzie River valley and offshore in the Beaufort Sea are also becoming important. Development, while necessary for economic prosperity, is being carefully managed so as not to threaten the fragile Arctic ecosystem and the traditional lifestyles of the northern peoples.
The Aboriginal peoples’ traditional subsistence activities–fishing, hunting and trapping–also have an impact on the N.W.T. economy. Commercial fishery development in the N.W.T.–freshwater and saltwater–is being encouraged. Fur harvesting continues to be very important, supplementing the income of many Aboriginal families.
Recently, tourism has gained prominence. The Northwest Territories offers a variety of landscapes of great natural beauty, conducive to fishing, wildlife observation and other outdoor activities. Sports fishing and big-game hunting play a small role as well, building on the Aboriginals’ innate skills in those fields.