Securing a voice in the running of their government did not come easy for the residents of the North-West Territories.
Canada acquired the region for settlement purposes in 1870, but had no interest in providing effective or representative government. The federal government wanted a free hand in deciding and shaping the region’s development — without any local input or interference.
This colonial status meant that the territories’ first government was based outside the territories, in Winnipeg, and headed by the lieutenant governor for the new province of Manitoba; he effectively wore two hats. There was also provision for an appointed council (with executive and legislative duties), but no appointments were made until December 1872. In fact, the NWT government did not hold its first legislative session until March 1873.
Any and all decisions made by the lieutenant governor and council, moreover, required the approval of the Canadian government to come into force. Nor was there any territorial government staff at the beginning. Ottawa preferred a policy of administrative economy — in other words, do nothing and save money until action was absolutely necessary.
The 1875 North-West Territories Act finally created a separate government for the territories, and brought together in a single statute all previous legislation concerning governance of the region.
And even though the government structure remained the same under the new legislation, the lieutenant governor now had to reside in the territories and hold council meetings there (first, Fort Livingstone, then Battleford, and finally Regina).
These changes did little to appease the growing territorial population. The settlers who emigrated West in the late 1870s and early 1880s had come from a tradition where they enjoyed a popular interest in political affairs and exercised a voice in governing themselves. That was why a lively regional press — in the form of newspapers — appeared in several communities in the North Saskatchewan country and along the CPR main line.
But the new North-West Territories Council after 1875 consisted initially of only three appointees (two magistrates, the other the NWMP commissioner) who were not even paid for their duties because they were already salaried government employees. The lieutenant governor, meanwhile, continued to exercise sole control over the territorial budget and exercised wide discretionary powers.
The 1875 NWT Act did allow for elected council representation, but not until there were 1,000 people in a district. It was consequently not until 1880 that Lorne, the first electoral constituency in the future province of Saskatchewan, was created in the Prince Albert area.
Westerners objected to the glacial pace of democratic reform — and the fact that the federal government had to be repeatedly prodded. It could have been worse.
In 1880, Ottawa floated the idea of returning the territorial government to Winnipeg. Even though it never happened because of the storm of regional protest, the proposal underscored the federal government’s contempt for territorial government.
Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie once told the House of Commons that the territorial administration should “be in the hands of the Government here in Ottawa.”
His Conservative successor thought the same way. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald believed that the position of lieutenant governor was such a “useless expense” that Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney could easily handle both jobs.
This autocratic rule spawned a spirited protest movement, spearheaded by some of the first elected territorial councillors but powered by the full force of the white and Métis communities.
One Prince Albert resident charged that the West was being deliberately held back “through circumstances over which we have had no control.”
Newspaperman Frank Oliver, the elected representative for Edmonton, was more blunt.
“If history is to be taken as a guide,” he thundered in an Edmonton Bulletin editorial, “what could be plainer than without rebellion the people of the North West need expect nothing.”
Lieutenant-governor Dewdney dismissed Oliver’s remarks as “wild talk.”
But as the Regina Journal declared: “The North-West … will be satisfied with nothing short of an administration responsible to the people in the fullest sense of the word.”
It was not until 1888 that a fully elected 22-member legislative assembly was established. Responsible government took another nine years.
Voting privileges in Saskatchewan today would be the envy of people living in the territories in the 1870s and 1880s.
Please take time to cast your ballot on Election Day.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-B1176
Photo caption: A polling station near Fort Qu’Appelle during the 1904 federal election.
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