Large administrative area of Canada, extending into the Arctic Circle. Covering one-eighth of the total area of the country, it comprises the mainland lying north of the 60th parallel (latitude 60° north) and some islands between the Canadian mainland and the North Pole. It is bounded by Yukon Territory to the west, Nunavut to the east, the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to the south; area 1,299,070 sq km/501,441 sq mi; population (2001 est) 40,900 (with substantial numbers of indigenous peoples: Inuvialuit, Slavey, Dene, Métis, Inuit; about half the population is aboriginal). The capital is Yellowknife. Industries include oil and natural gas extraction and mining of zinc, lead, and gold; other activities are fur-trapping and fishing.
The western plains of the Northwest Territories are drained by the great water systems of the Mackenzie River, Great Bear Lake, eighth-largest in the world, and Great Slave Lake, third-largest in North America. Southwest of these lakes lie the Mackenzie Mountains (part of the Canadian Rocky Mountains) and, on the border with Yukon Territory, the Selwyn Mountains and some parts of the Intermontaine Region. Mount Sir James MacBrien on the Yukon border, at 2,762 m/9,062 ft, is the highest point in the Territories. Along the southern border is part of the High Plains section of the Great Plains, extending north from Alberta. The northernmost part of the mainland, and the Canadian Arctic islands, are totally devoid of trees, being covered instead by tundra (low-growing vegetation), grazed by vast herds of caribou. This area was long known as the ‘barren lands’. Thousands of small lakes, bogs, and streams characterize this terrain, which has as little precipitation as many deserts, but where permafrost keeps water on or near the surface; muskeg is common. Only in the far southwest, in the Mackenzie lowlands, can large coniferous forests (boreal forest, or taiga) be found.
Towns and cities include Fort Smith, Hay River, Norman Wells, Inuvik, Echo Bay (Port Radium), Fort Laird, and Fort McPherson.
Following the creation of Nunavut in 1999, the constitution of the Northwest Territories is subject to review. Currently, citizens vote for a 19-seat territorial assembly, which has no organized political parties, and for a representative in the Federal House of Commons. The central government appoints a commissioner for the Territories, and a representative in the Federal Senate.
The region's poorly developed, highly acidic soils are of little agricultural value, and farming is limited to settlement areas where root crops are cultivated, and market gardening, dairy farming, and livestock-rearing are practised. Most foodstuffs have to be imported by road, rail, air, or river transport through supply centres such as Hay River. Trees tend to be small and stunted in growth, and are only large enough for commercial exploitation in the southern areas. Fishing still takes place in Great Slave Lake and Hudson Bay.
Fur-trapping (the most valuable pelts being white fox, wolverine, beaver, mink, lynx, and red fox) was once a major industry, but has been hit by anti-fur campaigns. The government of the Northwest Territories maintains that the European boycott of sealskin products and campaigns against fur trapping are destroying the traditional aboriginal way of life.
Mineral extraction is the principal source of income in the Territories. The existence here of copper, coal, and oil has been known since the end of the 18th century. Since the 1920s, oil has been extracted at Norman Wells; 11-12 million barrels per year are piped from here to Zama, Alberta. Fuel demand during World War II caused a boom in the oil industry, and exploration continues along the Beaufort Sea and elsewhere. In the 1930s, the Yellowknife area became a gold rush site; in 1995 six gold mines were still operating, four in the Yellowknife area, and two elsewhere in the Slave region. The shores of Great Bear Lake, around Echo Bay (Port Radium) have been mined for pitchblende, and there was a nickel boom at Rankin Inlet in the 1950s. Iron, lead, and zinc is now extracted in the High Arctic, and gold, uranium, and tungsten are found in the Selwyn Mountains. Two diamond mines were operating by 2003. The environmental and social impact of these various mining activities on the indigenous peoples has been the subject of much debate.
The search for the Northwest Passage brought expeditions into the region's waters from the early 17th century. By 1670 trapping was flourishing in the North, and in that year a British royal charter granted the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), jurisdiction over the entire Hudson Bay watershed (which was known as Rupert's Land). In the 1770s, Samuel Hearne travelled overland from the Bay to the Coppermine River. From the 1780s, the North West Company, based in Montréal, competed with the HBC, sending explorers to the west; rivalry ceased in 1821, when the two companies combined.
The modern Northwest Territories came into being after the Canadian Confederation of 1867, when the new Canadian government bought the northern part of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company (1869). With the exception that most of the islands of the Arctic Archipelago were added to the region in 1880, the history of the Territories since their creation has been one of diminution. Manitoba was created from a small southern section of the Territories in 1870, and enlarged in 1881 and 1912. Ontario took land to the south of James Bay in 1874 and 1889. Yukon Territory was separated in 1898, and Québec received lands on the southeast of James Bay. Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905. In 1912, in addition to Manitoba's enlargement, Ontario received more lands on Hudson Bay, and Québec gained lands comprising Nouveau-Québec (most of Ungava).
An act of 1952 placed the Northwest Territories under a commissioner acting in Ottawa under the Ministry of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. Yellowknife became capital in 1967 when the seat of government was transferred. In 1992, a regional referendum approved the creation of an Inuit semi-autonomous homeland, known as Nunavut. This homeland, which covers more than 1,900,000 sq km/733,590 sq mi in Northwest Territories (20% of all Canada, came into existence in 1999. The Inuit own 353,160 sq km/136,493 sq mi of the territory outright, and share control over the remaining Crown Lands with the Federal Government.
Geologically, the Precambrian Canadian Shield, a heavily eroded mountain system of old hard rocks with plateau areas, occupies the eastern areas, while in the western districts the sedimentary rocks of the Rocky Mountain system reach north towards the Arctic Ocean in the Mackenzie Mountains.
Extremely harsh conditions persist throughout the year. Winters are long, with five to seven months of sub-zero temperatures, and sub-freezing weather for eight to ten months; June to September are the only frost-free months. January temperatures average −34°C. Precipitation is light, less than 250 mm/10 in, but low temperatures ensure that little is lost through evaporation, and this adds to the problem of surface water accumulations. The soil in Northwest Territories is permanently frozen to great depths; a condition known as permafrost. Only the top layers thaw out in the summer, resulting in marshy expanses where the surface moisture cannot drain away.
Transport and tourism
To encourage the development of the Northwest Territories, the Mackenzie Highway was built between Grimshaw in Alberta, and Hay River on Great Slave Lake, with an extension round the lake to the capital Yellowknife. A railway links Pine Point and Hay River on the south shore with the southern network in Alberta province.
A number of national parks have been established. Arctic ecosystems may be observed at Aulavik on Banks Island, a musk oxen reserve. Major wildlife preserves include Wood Buffalo National Park (1922, on the Alberta border) and the Thelon game sanctuary (1927). Finally, spectacular natural scenery may be found in Nahanni National Park. Situated on the southwestern mainland, in the Mackenzie Mountains, and encompassing the South Nahanni River, this wilderness features 1,200 m/4,000 ft-deep gorges and massive waterfalls, and has been designated a world heritage area of global significance. Such sites of natural beauty have drawn a growing number of tourists to the region since the 1960s. Another attraction is to observe the aboriginal peoples in their native environment; Inuit settlements producing traditional handicrafts, one of the few manufactures in the Territories, are now much visited.
People and culture
The Inuit, the main aboriginal group inhabiting this region, traditionally lived by hunting the plentiful caribou, but have found their lives greatly altered by contact with white society. The Dene (woodland Indians speaking an Athabaskan language) live in the woods of the southwest, and there is a community of Métis in the far southwest. Together, these three indigenous groups make up the majority of the Territories' population. White settlers live largely in the southwest, around Yellowknife, and in scattered scientific and government posts; miners and prospectors make up most of the nongovernmental white population, and there are some fishermen on Great Slave Lake and chunters and trappers working as far north as the Southern Arctic Archipelago.
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