The Northern Territories

Occupying nearly 40 per cent of Canada’s total landmass, the North is an iconic, yet mysterious part of Canada, famous for its cliched images of igloos, Eskimos, icebergs, polar bears, seal-clubbers and Northern Lights, but also a region few will ever visit.

Small in population, mostly weak economically and often unbearable in weather, Canada’s northern communities are among the most isolated parts of the country, and easily ignored by all but those who actually live there. For those tough enough to do so, however, northern living can be a source of great pride and a symbol of man’s ability to overcome some of nature’s harshest terrain in the pursuit of a traditional pioneer lifestyle that a small minority of Canadians have enjoyed for centuries.


Northern lights

The unique atmosphere of the Canadian north causes a spectacular light phenomena in the night sky known as the aurora borealis.

“Northern” Canada encompasses all land above the country’s 60th parallel, which is divided into three territories (from west to east): Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Upwards of 90 per cent of the land in all three is strictly uninhabitable, a barren wasteland of rock, ice and snow, meaning most populated areas are located either in the southern region or close to the coast of some lake, river or ocean. Even then, “habitable” is very much in the eye of the beholder. Even in the cities, it’s not at all uncommon for winter temperatures to dip below -40˚(C).

Along with the snowy, generally treeless landscapes, Canada’s North is particularly well-known as being the fabled “land of the midnight sun.” Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, days up there can entail up to 24 straight hours of sunlight in the summer, but also 24 hours of straight darkness in the winter.

Canada’s most extreme northern region is home to land that is so frozen, barren, dry and featureless that it’s been used as training ground for astronauts. Despite the sub-arctic temperatures, much of the land is actually considered desert, since there is virtually no moisture or precipitation, and few living creatures can survive.

History of the Region


The aboriginal people of Canada's North, known for their distinctive furry coats, are known as "Inuit." The popular term "Eskimo" is now considered politically incorrect.

Unlike the rest of the country, Canada’s North was never entirely taken over by Europeans. Both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have thus retained their aboriginal majorities, while the Yukon has the country’s largest per-capita aboriginal community, at around 23 per cent of the population. Many of these residents retain cultures and traditions that have remained unchanged for centuries, and in some very rural communities, subsistence hunter-gatherer lifestyles are still practised.

French and British fur traders first migrated to Canada’s North in the mid 1600s, moving west from Europe’s colonies on the Atlantic coast. In 1670, the British, in typical British fashion, made a sweeping claim of ownership of much of the northernmost region of North America, naming the vast territory Rupert’s Land and placing political control in the hands of the British-run Hudson’s Bay Company. Given a great deal of independence by London, for two centuries the HBC grew large and wealthy through its cutthroat dominance of the lucrative Canadian fur trade, dotting the northern half of the continent with military bases and commercial trading posts that gradually evolved into modest villages (to this day, many northern cities are still named “Fort” something-or-other).


Created by Inuit for centuries, the "Inukshuk" are little men made of rock that help travelers find their way through difficult terrain.

In 1870, the British decided land ownership was better suited to governments than corporations, and agreed to transfer the  management of Rupert’s Land to the recently-formed Government of Canada. The land was then chopped up into several provinces and territories in the early 20th century, establishing not only the three northern territories, but also the Prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Though tour guides may attempt to put an upbeat face on Canada’s North by playing up its “serenity” and “vast open spaces,” the North is not generally a happy part of the country. Virtually every negative statistic you can imagine — crime, domestic violence, prison population, drugs, suicide — are vastly higher in the North than anywhere else in Canada. The most common explanation is that the overbearing dullness and economic hopelessness of the region, coupled with its often hideous weather, provokes all sorts of depression and anxiety in its residents, as well as a generally nihilistic worldview.

What Makes a Territory Different From a Province?

Originally,the main difference between provinces and territories is that they were governed by two different political systems. Although they each still maintain some unique characteristics today, the distinction has become far blurrier and less relevant over the last few decades.

Territorial commissioners

The three territorial commissioners, wearing the ceremonial robes of the Order of St. John — a traditional honour given to commissioners.

From the time the territories were first carved out of Rupert’s Land to about the mid-1970s, there was very little democracy in Canada’s North. They had to share a single Member of Parliament (but no senators), and local affairs were managed by Ottawa-appointed Commissioners who ruled much like the dictatorial colonial governors of old. Increasingly unpopular, this state of affairs was massively reformed during the administration of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), who gave the territories their own MPs, senators and elected legislatures from which a local prime minister would be chosen, replacing the powers of the Commissioner. Though Commissioners remain, they’re now powerless figureheads akin to the Lieutenant-Governors of the provinces, and are usually beloved local personalities or retired hack politicians, rather than out-of-territory bureaucrats.

The territorial legislatures of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are also somewhat distinct in that they are strictly non-partisan, meaning all members are elected without any party affiliation. The territorial premier and her cabinet, in turn, are elected by the legislature as a whole, rather than being appointed from the majority party faction in traditional British parliamentary style. This is sometimes known as consensus style governance, since it places a greater emphasis on collective voting than us-versus-them partisanship.

So, why have a territory at all? The main distinction has to do with natural resource royalties, which territorial governments cannot charge nor collect. This is the last lingering legacy of colonialism in the territories, and is showing signs of becoming a more contentious political issue as the North begins to make significant new discoveries of diamonds and oil.

The Three Territories

The Yukon

The history of the Yukon (increasingly referred to without the “the”) is essentially the history of the gold rush, the territory’s shining moment of international fame from which it has never fully recovered.

Yukon pass

This iconic Yukon photo shows desperate hikers crossing the savage Gold Rush-era Chilkoot trial between Alaska and the Yukon.

Originally a mostly vacant fur-trading outpost of the NWT, everything changed in 1897 when gold was first discovered in the famed Klondike River. Over the next decade, thousands of new residents would flood in from all over the world, hoping to get their hands on some of the sweet, sweet metal, and hastily-built apartments, saloons and shops sprung up to build the river-adjacent city of Dawson. Despite popular legends of overnight millionaires, only a handful of rich plutocrats actually profited from the rush, and the Yukon declined as quickly as it arose. World War II (1939-1945) brought a second boost, following the construction of a massive military highway linking the Yukon to British Columbia and Alaska at either end, a vital lifeline that helped integrate the territory into mainstream North American trade and culture in the latter half of the century.

While still tiny in terms of population, the Yukon’s modernity and urbanization have earned it the reputation of a “province-in-waiting” in contrast to the more barren and desolate NWT and Nunavut. Most Yukoners live in or around the new capital of Whitehorse, Dawson having long since faded. In contrast to the more blue collar, resource-based economies and cultures of the other territories, the Yukon has also effectively made the transition to a largely middle-class, service-based economy.

Links About The Yukon:

Northwest Territories

Polar bear jumping

The issue of global warming is particularly acute in the Canadian arctic, where melting ice threatens the habitat of endangered local animals like polar bears. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Though the name ends with an “s,” the Northwest Territories are now actually a single unit, the last remaining piece of the massive Rupert’s Land colony that was split into several different provinces and territories during the first half of the 20th century. The modern “NWT,” as it’s casually know, is a sort of weirdly rhombus-shaped thing between the Yukon and Nunavut, containing two of Canada’s biggest lakes, Great Slave and Great Bear. Most NWT people live around the coast of the former.

Remote and desolate, as the fur trade began to fizzle out and the livable parts of the territory were parceled off, the rump NWT retained a tiny population of less than 10 000 until the 1930s, when new deposits of minerals, oil and natural gas were slowly unearthed, spawning an influx of natural resource corporations and government bureaucrats. The same thing happened all over again in the mid-nineties, when diamonds were discovered.

Though this all created an influx of new industries and jobs, the NWT has not profited as much from its natural resource wealth as other resource-rich parts of Canada, like Alberta and Newfoundland, because of the way the Canadian system denies territorial governments the ability to charge royalties. This has led to pressures to create some sort of new political system to spread the wealth around a bit more, particularly one that would allow many of the territories’ native bands to profit more directly from the resources found on their lands.

Links About The Northwest Territories:


The most obscure, exotic and stereotypical of the territories, to even say “Nunavut” in Canada is to conjure up an image of the most remote, lonely, backwards place in the country. Carved from the NWT in 1999 as part of the federal government’s efforts to promote greater self-government for Canada’s northern aboriginals, Nunavut is the only region of Canada where whites comprise less than 20 per cent of the population and over 70 per cent speak neither English or French as their first language.

Nunavut stop sign

Nunavut's native people speak a unique language known as Inuktitut, which features its own distinctive alphabet. As one of the territory's three official languages, Inuktitut can be seen on a variety of signs and documents in Nunavut.

Nunavut consists of two parts: a vast, but mostly uninhabitable mainland (covered by the unambiguously-named Barren Grounds) and a northern archipelago of gigantic and equally barren islands. In both cases, the small, scattered population centres are tightly crammed near the coasts. The largest city in the province has less than 7 000 people, and most communities are generally poor and extremely rural.

As you might expect from a place that was only incorporated in 1999, much of Nunavut is a recent creation. Many of its largest cities are either the outgrowth of World War II-era air force bases (as is the case with capital Iqaluit), or the result of Cold War-era settlement programs, when the Canadian government was trying to assert greater sovereignty over the Arctic. Virtually the entire economy of Nunavut is government-run or subsidized in some way.

Links About Nunavut:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada's north is divided into three territories with very small populations.
  • Much of the land in the territories is frozen and inhabitable.
  • Large numbers of aboriginals (or "Inuit") make up the northern population.
  • Lacking any economic clout, the North tends to go largely ignored by the rest of Canada.