Creation of a New Northwest Territories

On April 1, 1999 a new Northwest Territories was created when new boundaries were drawn in Canada's North. Two new territories, a new NWT and Nunavut (which means "our land" in Inuktitut), were created. This change marked the first significant change to the map of Canada since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.

The motivation for creating two new territories in Canada's North stemmed from the people of Nunavut's desire to have their own government, one that is closer to the people and more culturally-based including the use of Inuktitut as the working language of the new government. 

However, the concept of dividing the NWT dates back to the 1950s when non-aboriginals in the Mackenzie Valley in the western part of the NWT pushed to divide the territory, arguing the move would allow the West to move more rapidly to responsible government. 

The creation of the two new territories moved one step closer to reality in 1963 when the federal government introduced legislation to divide the Northwest Territories into the Mackenzie and Nunassiaq territories. But later that same year the legislation died on the order paper. 

The next year, the newly elected Northwest Territories Council expressed opposition to dividing the region. Dean A.W.R. Carruthers was appointed by the federal government to head a commission to study the development of government in the Northwest Territories. After the completion of the study in 1966, the Commission recommended that the NWT should not divide into two territories. This slowed the discussion of the issue for a few years. 

In 1976, the issue was re-ignited when the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (the main political Inuit organization of the time) proposed the creation of Nunavut as part of the comprehensive Inuit land claim settlement, including the Inuvialuit area of the Beaufort Sea. Later that year, due to development pressure in their region, the Inuvialuit split from the ITC and pursued their own land claim. 

That same year, a federal electoral boundary commission recommended two electoral districts for the Northwest Territories: Nunatsiaq and the Western Arctic. The recommended changes were in effect in time for the 1979 federal election. 

Over the next 12 months, many groups submitted suggestions as to where a dividing line could be drawn if the NWT were to separate into two territories. The Dene Nation (the organization representing Dene in the western part of the Northwest Territories) proposed dividing the NWT into three territories. The Métis Association suggested extending the Manitoba/Saskatchewan boundary northward. At the end of 1977 the NWT Inuit Land Claims Commission made a recommendation to the federal government that a new territory and government called Nunavut be established. 

Two years later, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada released a paper calling for division of the NWT within 10 years and provincial status for Nunavut to follow in five years. In 1980, delegates at ITC's Annual General Meeting unanimously supported the creation of Nunavut. 

That same year, the Legislative Assembly's Special Committee on Unity reported a lack of consensus in the NWT for the continuation of one territory. Members of the Legislative Assembly voted 16-1 in favor of creating two new territories. 

In 1981, MLAs agreed to put the division question to the people of the NWT. Voters were asked, "Do you think the Northwest Territories should be divided?" 

The plebiscite on dividing the NWT was held April 14, 1982 and 56.6 per cent of the voters supported the idea, with the vote in Nunavut being very high in favour. Over the next 10 years the federal government announced its support of Nunavut, boundaries were agreed to and then disagreed upon, and a boundary plebiscite was called and canceled. In February 1992 the Executive Council set May 4 as the date for Northerners to vote on a proposed boundary, known as the Parker line, for creating two new territories.

A slim majority supported the proposed boundary with high voter turnout in Nunavut and considerably lower turnout in the West.

In November 1992 the Inuit overwhelmingly approved the Nunavut final land claim agreement and took a huge step toward realizing their dream of the new territory of Nunavut and their own government. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Northwest Territories Government Leader Nellie Cournoyea, and Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut President Paul Quassa signed the deal in Iqaluit in May 1993. Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut was the organization that negotiated the Inuit land claim and has since been replaced by Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated.

Members of the 13th Legislative Assembly and the Government of the Northwest Territories (1995-1999) were responsible for the overwhelming task of establishing two new territories. Some tasks included passing legislation to allow for the creation of the new territories and transferring responsibility for programs and services to the new Nunavut Government in time for April 1, 1999.

NWT after 1999

Reaching political consensus on a new structure of governance for the reshaped NWT has been a challenge. In 1992 the Constitutional Development Steering Committee was tasked with drafting a constitution for the West. In 1996 the Constitutional Working Group, together with political and aboriginal leaders, drafted a constitutional options package that was followed by a second package about a year later. Both packages were taken to the public for consultation; however, that work is now on hold as leaders of the federal, territorial and aboriginal governments work together to clarify their respective working relationships.

In the interim, MLAs have agreed that the name “Northwest Territories” will continue to be used until residents are asked to vote on a new constitution or the Assembly decides to hold a vote on the name.

A Special Committee on Western Identity was established in 1998 to make recommendations on the official symbols (flag, flower, bird, etc.) and heraldry (coat of arms) for the Northwest Territories after division. Committee members recommended that the following symbols be retained: gyrfalcon (bird), mountain avens (flower), gold (mineral), the tartan, and the polar bear license plate. The committee recommended that the following symbols be changed: the official tree be the tamarack replacing the jack pine, the diamond be adopted as the official gemstone, and the Arctic Grayling be named the official fish. The committee also suggested that a new coat of arms, flag, and mace be designed. The new mace was officially unveiled on January 14, 2000. The other symbols have been adopted as suggested.

The 14 western MLAs elected in 1995 to serve the constituencies in the Western Arctic as part of the pre-division 13th Assembly served in office until the fall of 1999. Members agreed in July 1999 to increase their numbers by five for a 19-member Legislature that would form the 14th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, the first Assembly post-division. Voters went to the polls on December 6, 1999. The 14th Legislative Assembly continued until December 2003.

Unlike their counterparts in Nunavut, the population is almost evenly split between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in the NWT. As a result, issues such as aboriginal self-government and comprehensive land claims will continue to be hot topics for discussion until the issues are resolved and a long-term arrangement is decided upon.