The vastness of Canada's Northwest Territories meant that for much of its history it was divided into several districts for ease of administration. These territorial divisions were abolished during the territory's most recent contraction in 1999.
Originally Canada gained control of the Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870. At the same time, a small piece of Rupert's Land was formed into the province of Manitoba, but the rest of the two territories were merged and renamed the North-West Territories. This region included the vast bulk of Canada's current territory and covered an area about the size of western Europe. In 1880 the Arctic Archipelago was ceded to Canada by the United Kingdom and these were also added to the territory.
In 1876 the District of Keewatin, between Manitoba and Ontario and along the entire west coast of Hudson Bay, had become populated by loggers and gold seekers. The area was claimed by both Ontario and Manitoba, and the federal government felt making it into its own territory would be a useful compromise. Unlike later districts this region was separated from the North-West Territories, and was, in effect, another territory. The Keewatin District was administered from Winnipeg, Manitoba, by the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba and Keewatin, a federal appointee.
As the southern part of the territories became populated four districts were created in 1882, but unlike Keewatin these remained a part of the North-West Territories and thus were formally called provisional districts:
- The District of Alberta was where the southern half of the province of Alberta is today, east of British Columbia, west of the line between ranges 10 and 11 of the Dominion Land Survey (about 112° west) and north of the American border.
- The District of Athabaska covered the northern half of what is today both Alberta and Saskatchewan.
- The District of Assiniboia was where the southernmost quarter of Saskatchewan is today, but stretched somewhat further west into what is today Alberta.
- The District of Saskatchewan was to the north of Assiniboia extending halfway up modern Saskatchewan. It stretched further east than Assiniboia, running all the way to the shore of Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River. It also stretched west into what is now Alberta.
In 1895 the northern section of the territory was divided into four more districts for ease of administration:
- The District of Franklin was made up of the Arctic Islands.
- The District of Ungava was made up of what is today northern Quebec
- The District of Yukon was made up of what is today the Yukon Territory. In 1898 due to the Klondike Gold Rush it was made a fully separate territory.
- The District of Mackenzie was the rest stretching from the Yukon border in the west to the Keewatin border in the east, and containing none of the islands.
In 1905 the system was reorganized as Alberta and Saskatchewan were made provinces. The districts of Alberta, Assiniboia, Athabaska and Saskatchewan were merged into these provinces. A small portion of the District of Saskatchewan and District of Athabaska were added to the District of Keewatin, as a was a portion of the District of Mackenzie. Keewatin's autonomy was removed, however, and it was made equal to the three other remaining districts of the Northwest Territories. It was also at this time that the hyphen was removed from "North-West".
In 1912 the District of Ungava was merged into Quebec, and most of the District of Keewatin was divided between Ontario and Manitoba as the borders of those three provinces were pushed northwards.
The three remaining districts continued to be used for a number decades, but as control over the territory was moved from government bureaucrats to a centralized government in Yellowknife the divisions began to have far less use. Eventually the territory was divided into five administrative regions: Inuvik, Fort Smith, Kitikmeot, Keewatin and Baffin. In 1999 the territory was divided in two with the separation of Nunavut, and the regional boundaries were rearranged so that the three latter regions moved in entirety into Nunavut. Fort Smith region and Inuvik region remain in use as census divisions of the Northwest Territories but do not possess any form of autonomy.
The Districts of Mackenzie, Keewatin and Franklin disappeared upon Nunavut's creation.
- A map of the districts of the Northwest Territories (http://www.collectionscanada.ca/obj/h18/f1/1898-v5-e.jpg)