85 Noteworthy Facts About the Northwest Territories

Facts about the Northwest Territories Canada

Discover the wonders of the spectacular Northwest Territories with these surprising, interesting, and fun facts about this vast Canadian region.

From its vast expanse once covering three-quarters of present-day Canada, explore the unique and captivating stories that define the Northwest Territories.

Northwest Territories At-a-Glance

Location: Northern Canada, bordering Yukon, Nunavut, and provinces British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
Population: Estimated 44,760 (Q4 2023).
Capital: Yellowknife.
Area: 1,346,106 km², the third-largest region in Canada.
Languages: English, French, Chipewyan, Cree, and several others.
Climate: Varies from subarctic in the south to polar in the north.
(Source: Wikipedia)

General Northwest Territories Facts

1. The Northwest Territories is one of the three territories of Canada. These are large northern areas that are federally managed but have been gaining more province-like status recently.

2. It is located between the other two territories, with the Yukon to its west and Nunavut to its east, at the northern end of the North American continent.

3. The territory also borders British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to the south, while its southeastern corner is kitty-corner to Manitoba.

4. At 1,346,106 km2 (519,734 mi2) in size, the Northwest Territories is the third largest of the 13 provinces and territories in Canada, surpassed by Nunavut and Quebec, but larger than Ontario. It is larger than the five smallest provinces and territories combined.

5. The Northwest Territories is twice as large as the US state of Texas, but not quite as large as Alaska.

6. If the Northwest Territories were a country, it would be the 19th largest in the world, sitting between Mongolia and Peru in terms of size.

7. The part of the Northwest Territories above Great Bear Lake, including all of the territory’s islands, lie north of the Arctic Circle.

A tundra landscape with grey clouds on Victoria Island, NWT
Tundra on Victoria Island, the second largest island in Canada

8. Arctic Islands belonging to Northwest Territories include Banks Island, Prince Patrick Island, and parts of Borden Island, Melville Island, and Victoria Island (the 2nd largest island in Canada and 8th largest in the world).

9. Northwest Territories joined the Canada Confederation in 1870, the first territory to do so. It has been reduced in size 4 times since then for the creation of several other provinces and territories.

10. At its largest size (in 1880), the North-West Territories included all of present-day Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, most of Manitoba, and parts of Ontario and Quebec. It encompassed about three-quarters of present-day Canada’s land, making it similar in size to Australia.

11. With 45,500 people, the Northwest Territories has the highest population of any of Canada’s territories, but only a quarter the population of the least populated province, Prince Edward Island. However, it is 238 times larger than PEI.  

12. With 0.4 people per square kilometer, it has the second lowest population density of any province or territory. Only Nunavut is less densely population.

A city view of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Yellowknife, NWT

13. Yellowknife is the capital and only city in the Northwest Territories. With 22,300 people, it is not on the list of the 100 most populous cities in Canada. Just under half of the Northwest Territory’s people live in Yellowknife.

14. Yellowknife sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, the 2nd largest lake that is entirely in Canada (the largest is Great Bear Lake, which is also in the territory).

15. Besides Yellowknife, there are only four towns in the Northwest Territories (Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, and Norman Wells). All other populated centres have the status of either hamlet or community. In total, there are 33 inhabited communities in the territory.

16. All the communities in the Northwest Territories have Internet access.  

17. People in the Northwest Territories are called Northwest Territorians, People of the North, Northwester, or Northwesterner. Indigenous groups are more likely to identify with their own name.

Our Lady of Victory Church, which is shaped like an igloo, in Inuvik, NWT
“Igloo Church” in Inuvik

18. 51% of people in the Northwest Territories are indigenous, the second highest percentage of any province or territory, after Nunavut. They are mostly Dene, Inuvialuit (Western Inuit), and Métis. There is a history of violent conflict between the Dene and Inuit.

19. The territory has 11 official languages, including English, French, and 9 indigenous languages.

20. The name “North-West Territory” was first used by the British due to the land’s location relative to Rupert’s Land around Hudson’s Bay. Later this was modified to “North-West Territories” then “Northwest Territories.”

21. In the Inuktitut language, the area is known as Nunatsiaq or “beautiful land.”

22. In one poll for choosing a new name for the territory, the joke name “Bob” almost won. In the end, the territory’s original name won and was kept.

A NWT license plate shaped like a polar bear
NWT has the coolest license plates in Canada.

23. While often abbreviated as NWT, the official postal abbreviation is NT.

24. Northwest Territories license plates are shaped like a polar bear and say “Spectacular Northwest Territories.” In the past, they also said “Centennial”, “Canada’s Northland”, and “Explore Canada’s Arctic” (the latter is now used by Nunavut).  

25. Other nicknames for the territory have included “Canada’s Last Frontier”, “Land of the Polar Bear,” “North of Sixty” (because the 60th parallel is the territory’s southern boundary), and “The Land of the Midnight Sun” (now used by the Yukon).

26. The Northwest Territories flag has blue on the sides for water and white in the center for snow and ice. At the center is the territory’s coat of arms, which has white ice with a blue wavy strip representing the Northwest Passage, green and yellow on the left for trees and minerals in the south, and red on the right for tundra (separated by a squiggly tree line), and a white fox.

The official flag of the Northwest Territories
The Northwest Territories flag

27. Another version of the coat of arms also features two narwals, and a compass rose on the top.

28. The territorial gemstone of the Northwest Territories is the diamond.

Interesting Facts About the Northwest Territories

29. In Inuvik, NWT, the sun doesn’t rise whatsoever for a month in winter (around Dec. 6 to Jan 5). In summer, the “Midnight Sun” occurs from around May 25 to July 19, never completely setting.

30. Sachs Harbour (Ikahuak in the Inuinnaqtun language) is the northernmost community in the NWT. It sits at 72 degrees N on Banks Island and is home to 104 people.

Aerial view of Tuktoyaktuk
Tuktoyaktuk, the northernmost community reachable by road from the rest of Canada

31. Most of mainland NWT is covered in boreal forest, while Arctic tundra dominates the far north and the Arctic islands. The eastern part of mainland NWT is also part of the rocky Canadian Shield.

32. Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast of mainland NWT is the only community on the Arctic Coast in Canada that is reachable from the rest of Canada by road. The scenic Dempster Highway connects it to Dawson City in the Yukon.

33. There are around 1350 pingos around Tuktoyaktuk, which are large hills with a core of ice rising from the plains.

34. The NWT has three national parks (Aulavik, Tuktut Nogait, and Wood Buffalo) and three national park reserves (Nááts’ihch’oh, Nahanni, and Thaidene Nëné).

35. Aulavik National Park on Banks Island has the world’s highest concentration of muskoxen and Peary caribou.

Snow mountains and road on the Dempster Highway in NWT
The Dempster Highway to Inuvik in winter

36. According to Parks Canada, Aulavik National Park received a grand total of 15 visitors last year, while Tuktut Nogait got 14. These were the lowest figures of any national park in Canada.

37. Nahanni National Park Reserve was the first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in Canada, and the 4th one in the world. It is home to Virginia Falls, which is twice as tall as Niagara Falls and is considered one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Canada.

38. There are several other incredible waterfalls on the “Waterfalls Route,” the highway from the Alberta border around Great Slave Lake to Yellowknife.

The immense Virginia Falls in NWT
Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park Reserve

39. Wood Buffalo National Park, which is mostly in Alberta but has a small section in NWT, is the second largest national park in the world (fact: the largest is Northeast Greenland National Park). At 44,807 km2 (17,300 sq mi), Wood Buffalo is larger than Switzerland. The main access point to the park is Fort Smith, NWT. It is also a UNESCO site.

40. Super remote Great Bear Lake in NWT is the largest lake totally in Canada (not counting the Great Lakes shared with the US) and the 8th largest lake in the world (7th if you don’t count the Caspian Sea). It is also the largest lake on or within the Arctic Circle.

41. At 31,328 km2 (12,096 mi2), Great Bear Lake is similar in size to Belgium or the US state of Maryland.

42. Saoyú-ʔehdacho, an area beside Great Bear Lake that is sacred to the local Sahtu people, is the largest National Historic Site in Canada.

43. At 28,568 km2 (11,030 sq mi), Great Slave Lake is similar in size to Albania or all of the islands of Hawaii. There is also a “Lesser” Slave Lake in Alberta. Although smaller than Great Slave Lake, hence the name, it is still huge.

A road of ice going across Great Slave Lake in winter
Ice road on Great Slave Lake

44. Great Slave Lake is also North America’s deepest lake, at 614 m (2014 ft) deep (fun fact: the second deepest is Crater Lake in Oregon). The lake is famous for its houseboats and winter ice roads.

45. Combined, Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake are larger than Croatia or Nova Scotia.

46. There are countless lakes in Northwest Territories, many of which remain unnamed, covering 12% of the territory’s area.

47. The Mackenzie River, which is entirely inside the NWT, is Canada’s longest river, at 1740 km (1,080 mi). It has the 2nd largest drainage area in North America after the Mississippi River.

48. The tallest point in the NWT is the peak of Mount Nirvana, at 2773 m (9098 ft) near the border with the Yukon.  

A sky filled with Northern Lights at night over Yellowknife
Northern Lights over Yellowknife

49. Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) are visible in the NWT 240 nights per year. Because Yellowknife sits right below the Aurora Oval, it is one of the best places in the world to witness the phenomenon. The indigenous-run Aurora Village is one of the best places to see them, teepees included!  

50. In summer, the NWT is plagued with blackflies, which come in swarms up to 10 feet high containing many thousands of them. They bite and are a real nuisance.

51. The Northwest Territories is home to around 5000 grizzly bears and several times more black bears, mostly below the tree line, and around 3000 polar bears in the far north, but many of the polar bears travel beyond the limits of the territory in season.

52. The lowest temperature on record in the NWT was −59.4°C (−75°F) on Jan. 8, 1936 at Fort Resolution, while the highest was 39.9°C (104°F) on June 30, 2021 at Fort Smith.

53. Annual Festivals in the NWT include the Snowking Festival in Yellowknife (which features a huge snow castle), Folk on the Rocks (a summer folk music festival in Yellowknife), and the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik (featuring northern arts, music, and crafts).

A group of three muskoxen standing together
Muskoxen are native to the NWT.

54. The NWT has the highest per capita GDP in Canada, at $100,871. This is due to a spike in income from the mineral industry. Non-indigenous people make, on average, twice as much as indigenous ones there.

55. The NWT is rich in gold, diamonds, natural gas, petroleum, radium, uranium, silver, and copper.

56. The NWT has the highest electricity costs in Canada, and (along with Nunavut) the highest cost of food.

57. Like Nunavut, but unlike the Yukon and all the provinces, the NWT does not have political parties. Instead, it operates on a consensus system.

Facts About the Northwest Territories History

58. The NWT has some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world, with some of them dating to 4 billion years ago.

59. Fossils from the NWT dating to 890 million years ago may be the oldest animal fossils ever found. They appear to be ancestors of sponges.

59. The area was completely covered in glaciers in the last ice age.

A rocky waterfall in NWT
Water flows over ancient bedrock in NWT

60. Around 14,000 years ago, the glaciers began melting and exposing the land. The first humans to arrive were the Dene.

61. Around 1000 years ago, the Inuvialuit arrived on the Arctic coast and islands.

62. In the 1570s, English sailor Martin Frobisher probably reached the Arctic archipelago of the Northwest Territories.

63. In 1610, Henry Hudson landed on the east coast of NWT (now Nunavut) in Hudson Bay, which bears his name. After him, more explorers arrived and ventured inland.

64. Around 1670, England established the North-Western Territory.

A room in an old fur trading fort, with a Hudson's Bay Company blanket
A room in a Hudson’s Bay Company fort, with signature HBC blanket

65. In the 1700s, fur traders for Hudson’s Bay Company and the competing North West Company explored the area, trading with local native people.

66. In 1789, Old Fort Providence was the first European settlement in the NWT, near modern-day Yellowknife.

67. In 1821, the two companies merged under the name Hudson’s Bay Company. Sir George Simpson headed the company for 40 years and traveled throughout the region, often by canoe. Fort Simpson is named after him.

68. From 1819 to 1845, John Franklin went on three Arctic expeditions to find the Northwest Passage. On the final one, his ship got stuck in ice, and he and all his shipmates died.

69. In 1870, England surrendered the North-Western Territory and Rupert’s Land from Hudson’s Bay to Canada. It became the North-West Territories.

Details on a monument dedicated to the NWT explorer John Franklin
Detail on the John Franklin Statue in London, England

70. In 1880, the Arctic islands were also transferred and joined the NWT.

71. The first NWT capital was Fort Garry, followed by Fort Livingstone (1876), Battleford (1877), Regina (1883), Ottawa (1905), Fort Smith (1911) and finally Yellowknife (1967).

72. The Yukon Territory was created from the NWT in 1898 following rapid development from its Klondike Gold Rush, and its borders were expanded in 1901.

73. In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed with the local indigenous people. At the time, it was the largest land settlement ever in Canada.

74. In 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan were also carved out of the NWT.

Aerial view of the Mackenzie River Delta in NWT
Mackenzie River as it approaches the Arctic Ocean

75. In 1912, parts of the NWT joined Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

76. In 1918, oil was found in the Mackenzie River Valley. Disputes over land and access to the oil resulted in Treaty 11.

77. In 1925, Canada extended its maritime boundary all the way to the North Pole (the world’s closest land to the North Pole today is in Nunavut).

78. In 1935, gold was found in the territory, leading to the establishment of Yellowknife nearby.

79. In the 1940s, local Dene people were employed to carry radioactive uranium at a mine near Great Bear Lake. Nearly half of them later died of cancer.

View of central Yellowknife along the rocky coast
Looking back at downtown Yellowknife from Bush Pilot’s Monument

80. From 1953-55, Canada relocated some Inuit families in NWT to the high Arctic to establish claims to the islands.

81. In 1967, the Bush Pilot’s Monument was erected in the capital, commemorating the pilots who flew supplies to the community before roads were built to it.

82. The NWT’s current flag was designed in 1970.

83. In 1975, the NWT and the Yukon gained the power to choose their own place names.

84. In 1993, the signing of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement resulted in the separation of Nunavut from the NWT. It was the largest land settlement claim in Canadian history and reduced NWT to one-third of its size.

View of Deh Cho bridge from a sand bar on the side of the river
Deh Cho Bridge across the Mackenzie River

85. In 2012, the Deh Cho Bridge across the Mackenzie River was completed, providing year-round road access to Yellowknife from the rest of Canada. Before that, people had to take a ferry across the road in summer and an ice road in winter. “Deh Cho” means Mackenzie River in the Slavey language.

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