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Provinces and Territories

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Territories or Provinces?

We might well ask ourselves why the federal government created two new provinces -- Alberta and Saskatchewan -- in 1905, but did not do the same for the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

To understand the thinking of politicians and public servants on this matter, several things must be considered. Control of Crown lands was one factor; in creating new provinces, the government had to take into account the claims of the population and of politicians concerning management of Crown lands. Ottawa wanted to maintain control over the sale of parcels of land, the use of natural resources and the development of land. In creating territories, instead of provinces, the federal government allowed administration of the northwestern regions to fall to federal public servants.

As the debate surrounding the creation of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan showed, politicians and public servants did not all agree that provinces should be created in such sparsely populated areas. Ottawa relented in these three instances, but felt that for what remained of the Northwest Territories after the provincial divisions in 1905, territorial status would suffice.

In 1905, the Northwest Territories was given a territorial commissioner whose powers included the authority to appoint a governing council. This was an extension of an 1875 law, and subsequent laws, which touched on the administration of the Northwest Territories. The original 1875 law outlined the matters over which the Territories would have control within its borders. These were: local and municipal taxation; property and civil rights and the administration of justice; public health; the licensing of inns and bars; border management; cemeteries; prevention of cruelty to animals; protection and conservation of wild animals, including game animals; protection of woods and forests; prisons and detention centres; policing; road and bridge construction and maintenance; infractions against public morals and public nuisance laws; all questions of a local or private nature; and the imposition of fines.

When the responsibilities of territories are compared with those of provinces, it quickly becomes apparent that the latter had much more freedom to govern, and had control over more areas of governance.

At the turn of the century, the attitude of politicians, public servants and the general population toward Native people was not guided by a commitment to social justice. Aboriginal populations were treated in whatever way would best ensure their not interfering with the plans of decision-makers. The series of treaties signed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries are evidence of this attitude. The Northwest Territories of the early 20th century was home mostly to Aboriginal people, with only a few hundred white people living in the region. At that time, the "Indian question" was the responsibility of federal public servants -- the same public servants who oversaw management of the territory.

The notion that Aboriginal people have the right to manage political systems within their own territories only made its way into mainstream thinking late in the 20th century. The establishment of seats of government in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, as well as the creation of Nunavut, are evidence of a new awareness on the part of the federal government and have been brought about by pressure exerted by Native people themselves.