History of the Legislative Assembly

Video produced in 1990 by the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation; outdated now, it is still a fascinating look at the NWT's history.

When the Northwest Territories became part of Canada in 1870, it included what is now the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, northern Ontario, and northern Quebec. The Arctic Islands were added in 1880. During this period, the Northwest Territories had government based on two key concepts of Canadian democracy - representation and responsibility. Its Legislative Assembly was fully elected and from 1897, the Assembly had a formally constituted Executive Council, which was accountable to the Assembly for the conduct of government.

The federal government created the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 after receiving pressure from the Northwest Territories Council. The remaining Northwest Territories reverted back to the status of a colony run from Ottawa as it had been in the early 1870s.

The Northwest Territories Act had provided for a four-member appointed Council to assist the federally appointed Commissioner but no members were named to the Council until 1921. All were federal civil servants living in Ottawa. The appointed Council acted more as an interdepartmental committee than as a legislative body.

No northerners were named to the Council until 1947 when J.G. McNiven of Yellowknife was appointed. In 1951, there was a tentative return to representative government when the Northwest Territories Act was amended to permit three elected members from the Mackenzie District to join the five appointed members. The Council began to alternate sittings between Ottawa and northern communities.

By 1966, elected Members formed a majority on the Council with seven elected and five appointed. The first elected members from the eastern Arctic, including the first Inuit member, took their seats.

By this time, political awareness in the North had increased and there was strong dissatisfaction with the system. The Territorial Council asked for an inquiry into the North’s political future and, in 1966, the Carrothers Commission, with former Commissioner John H. Parker as a member, submitted its report after traveling across the Territories to talk to residents.

Most of the Commission’s recommendations were accepted by the federal government early in 1967 and formed the basis for a gradual return to responsible government. The seat of government was moved from Ottawa to Yellowknife, a resident civil service was developed, Ottawa devolved many province-like responsibilities, and the NWT Council began to move towards becoming a fully elected Legislative Assembly.

By 1970, only four federal appointees remained on the 14-member Council. Amendments to the Northwest Territories Act allowed Council to decide the qualifications of electors and its members, to set their indemnities, and to develop a separate Consolidated Revenue Fund. By 1975 a standing committee system had developed and the Standing Committee on Finance was given the right to scrutinize the territorial budget.

In 1975, the first fully-elected Council since 1905 took office. Dene, Métis and Inuit members were the majority on the 15-seat Council. The Council, which was referred to as the Legislative Assembly after 1976, chose its own Speaker and named two members to the Executive Committee. The Commissioner no longer presided over Assembly sessions as had been customary in earlier Councils. The Eighth Assembly amended the Council Ordinance and lobbied the federal government for authority to set the number of constituencies between 15 and 25. The number was subsequently set at 22.

The 22 members elected to the Ninth Assembly in October 1979 accelerated the movement toward responsible government. The Assembly named seven of its members to sit on the Executive Committee (now called the Executive Council). Only three portfolios were still held by the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner and, by the end of the Ninth Assembly, two of those were transferred to elected members. The Deputy Commissioner’s position on the Executive Council was replaced by an eighth elected member in 1983.

The first order of business for members of the 12th Assembly was to elect a Speaker. For the first time, this process was done in public. The public also had the chance to view the election of the Government Leader and the Members of the Executive Council.

In February 1994 members passed a motion officially changing the title of Government Leader to Premier.

The 24 members of the Thirteenth Legislative Assembly were chosen in an election on October 16, 1995. Again the election of the Speaker, the Premier, and the seven Cabinet Ministers was held in a public forum. A new Premier was elected in December 1998 following the resignation of the former Premier.

On February 15, 1999, 19 members were elected to serve on the first Nunavut Legislative Assembly. However, members were not sworn in until April 1.

On April 1, 1999 two new territories, Nunavut and a new Northwest Territories, were created in Canada’s North. The 19 members elected in Nunavut officially took office. In the NWT the 14 western members of the 13th Legislative Assembly remained in office.

In July 1999 members agreed that 19 members would be elected on December 6th, 1999 to the 14th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

On December 6th, 1999, 19 members were elected to the 14th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, the first Assembly chosen in the NWT following division. Members of the 15th Legislative Assembly were elected on November 24, 2003; members of the 16th Legislative Assembly were elected on October 1, 2007; and members of the current 17th Legislative Assembly were elected on October 3, 2011.