- Corporate body
As the primary body of elected officials, the Legislative Assembly is empowered to pass new laws, amend existing laws, determine how public monies are expended, and approve policies and programs. Elections are held every four years and following the elections, the members of the Legislative Assembly elect from among themselves a Speaker of the House, a Premier and the members of the Executive Council. The members of the Executive Council, the Ministers, are assigned portfolios by the Premier and are responsible for managing the various departments and agencies of the Government of the Northwest Territories. Typically this includes introducing new legislation, setting budgets and setting government direction. Prior to 1979, the Legislative Assembly was known as the NWT Council, or Council of the Northwest Territories.
The Legislative Assembly operates according to standard parliamentary procedures with some modifications. The Assembly frequently refers questions to the Committee of the Whole where informal discussion takes place. The Legislative Assembly establishes standing and special committees in order to gather information and public opinion on different issues. The standing or permanent committees on finance, public accounts and legislation carry out a majority of the work of the Legislative Assembly. Sessions are usually held twice yearly for approximately 12 weeks. The official seven languages of the Northwest Territories (English, French, Chipewyan, Slavey, Dogrib, Gwich'in and Inuktitut) are used in the Legislative Assembly with interpretation services provided by the GNWT Language Bureau.
The original North West Territories were created in 1870 when the Hudson's Bay Company sold to the British Government all the lands which it governed under the letters patent of Charles II. These lands were immediately transferred to the Government of Canada. On June 22, 1869, the Dominion government of Canada had passed An Act for the temporary government of Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territory in preparation for the transfer of control of these lands. This Act provided for a lieutenant governor, who was to set up a council of 7 to 15 in the administration of affairs. The lands included all the country drained by the rivers flowing into Hudson Bay including most of Saskatchewan and Alberta, part of Manitoba and the Keewatin District of Nunavut. It did not at that time include the greater part of the Arctic, to which the United Kingdom had some claim arising from the various naval expeditions of the early nineteenth century. Although the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned its jurisdiction in 1870, it retained its trading posts and expanded its commercial activities into other parts of Canada. In 1880 the British Government transferred any rights which it had over the Arctic Islands (which were still not completely explored or mapped) to the Canadian Government.
In 1875, the North-West Territories Act was passed, providing for a resident Lieutenant-Governor and an appointed council of not more than five people. A provision allowed for electoral districts of not more than 1000 square miles and not less than 1000 people. At such time as there were 21 electoral districts, the Council would become a Legislative Assembly. This number was surpassed in 1888. The Territories were governed by English law as it existed at the time of the transfer to Canada. This was amended by a considerable body of Ordinances passed by the Council. Increasing demands for political independence led to the 1905 creation of the Provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and the northward extension of the Province of Manitoba.
The remaining Northwest Territories were constituted by an Act of the Canadian Parliament (4 & 5 Edw.VII, c. 27) in 1905. This provided for the appointment of a Commissioner and a nominated Council of four. A Commissioner for the Territories was appointed in August 1905 but for the next fifteen years the Commissioner ruled without the assistance of a Territorial Council.
The two Commissioners during this period were Frederick White (1905 - 1919), who was also Comptroller of the Royal North West Mounted Police, and N.W. Cory (1919 - 1930), who was Deputy Minister of the Interior. The entire administration of the Territories was therefore, in Ottawa. Administration of the Territories was the responsibility of the Federal Minister of the Interior, to whom both the Commissioner of Police and the Commissioner of the Territories reported. The population of the Northwest Territories was very sparse in 1905 and the northern islands still largely unexplored. It was not until 1911 that the first complete census was organized throughout the area. Since the area to be covered was vast, administration was limited to essentials, and these duties were of a municipal type - the relief of the destitute, care of the sick and the prevention of crime. The police posts and patrols provided the local personnel and they were supplemented by the voluntary efforts of missionaries and Hudson's Bay Company post managers. The police reported to the Mining Lands and Yukon Branch of the Ministry of the Interior (the Mines Branch until 1909) in all matters concerning the Territories. For the administration of justice, the relevant ordinances of the old North West Territories were applied. A few amendments and additions were made by Order in Council at the end of this period, but a decision of the Department of Justice in April, 1921 stated that these were invalid because no Council existed. Any justices appointed for the original Territories were apparently considered capable of hearing cases, and no new justices were appointed. Appeals could be made from their decisions to the nearest Provincial Court of Appeal (Acts 6 & 7 Edw. VII, c. 32 and 7 & 8 Edw. VII, c. 49).
Canada's interest in its Arctic territories has been stimulated from time to time by geological discoveries (gold, other metals and oil) or by war. Each of these events has been followed by changes (and an increase in volume) of administrative and judicial activity. The first of these changes occurred at the end of the First World War when oil was discovered at Norman Wells. The need to provide for the registration of land and mining claims in the Mackenzie District and for the amendment of the old Ordinance led to the appointment of the first Territorial Council on 20 April, 1921. The councillors (all senior members of the Department of the Interior, including the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) met only once, on 28 April 1921, to hear a report by their Acting Secretary, Mr. O.S. Finnie. A party of twenty-two employees had been sent from Ottawa to Fort Smith (just across the Alberta border) to organize a government office for the Mackenzie District. The councillors expressed considerable doubt about the legal position of the administration. The Ordinances needed revision and the validity of some was referred to the Department's legal advisers. Consideration was given to raising territorial revenue by charging fees for trading and business licences. It was agreed to ask for an amending Act to increase the number of councillors to six. The amending Act (11 & 12 Geo. V, c. 40) was passed on 13 June 1922 and the new Council met on the next day in a flurry of legal activity. The City of Ottawa lawfully became, for the first time, the capital of the Northwest Territories. The Entry and the Beverage Ordinances (issue by the Commissioner's sole authority) were declared ultra vires, and various official duties relating to the Territories were re-assigned.
A Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch was organized within the Department of the Interior with Mr. O.S. Finnie as its Director. He, and the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs became the two new councillors added by authority of the 1922 Act. By agreement with the Quebec Government, the Branch was also responsible for New Quebec and its Indigenous people. In 1936, when the Department of the Interior was abolished, the Branch and its duties were transferred to the Department of Mines and Resources. It was renamed the Bureau of Nortwest Territories and Yukon Affairs and placed in the Lands, Parks and Forests Branch of the Department. In 1950 and 1951 the duties of the Bureau were re-arranged and it was renamed several times.
Until the outbreak of the Second World War, the Territories continued to be governed in the same fashion as before 1922. The police (now re-organized as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) provided the local administration with assistance from the handful of local territorial government employees as well as the missionaries and H.B.C. post managers. However closer control was maintained by the Ottawa office and the Territorial Council. Increased efforts were made to list and control the Indigenous peoples. This in turn led to further demands for welfare services and an extension of law enforcement. Progress was slow. It was not until 1942, as a result of wartime problems, that Inuit were listed and issued with disc numbers. For many years the only magistrate in the Territories was an Alberta provincial judge who made an annual visit to the Territories.
The discovery of gold in the Great Slave Lake area was followed by the Second World War and further development of the oil resources of Norman Wells. Although these events did not produce any legislative and administrative changes, their impact on the Northwest Territories is clearly shown by the increased number of meetings of the Council and the increased volume of business generated by the administration. During almost the whole of this period the appropriate Deputy Minister acted as Commissioner: W.W. Cory (1919-31), H.H. Rowatt (1931-34), Dr. Charles Camsell (1936-46), and Dr. H.L. Keenleyside (1947-50). In 1935 Mr. R.A. Gibson, the Deputy Commissioner# presided at meetings of the Council. All the members of the Council were Federal public servants, with the first northern resident only being appointed to the Council in 1947 (J.G. McNiven). However by 1951 it was quite clear that this colonial style of government was unsuitable for the increased population and industrial activities of the Territories.
In 1951, the Northwest Territories Act was amended to permit three elected members to be included in the Council of eight and required Council to hold at least two sessions a year, one of them in the north. Further amendments increased the Council's legislative and financial powers. By 1955, Council could authorize the Commissioner to make agreements with the federal government, subject to Ottawa's approval and they could use a separate Northwest Territories revenue account, as long as a deficit was not created. The amendments also allowed the Commissioner to control some public lands, created a Territorial Court, and repealed major part of the NWT Act so that territorial ordinances could take their place.
In 1958, the Council received the power to borrow money subject to federal approval and by 1960 the Council had the power to pass game laws affecting Dene and Inuit. A fourth elected member was added in 1954, as Council membership rose to nine. The size remained the same until 1966, when the first electoral districts were created outside of the Mackenzie. In 1960, the first members from outside the civil service were appointed. In 1964, separate offices for the Government of the Northwest Territories were created; the position of Commissioner became a full-time appointment and the task of building a headquarters that would eventually move north began. A year later, the naming of the Deputy Commissioner became a separate Governor-in-Council appointment and his duties were made full-time. By 1964, four of the five appointees to the nine-member Council were from the private sector; the Deputy Commissioner remained as the only civil servant appointee to the Council. In 1965, the first Inuit member of Council was appointed and the following year, the Council's elected membership increased from four to seven as electoral districts were created in the Keewatin, High Arctic and Eastern Arctic. In that year the Commissioner-in-Council was given authority to set qualifications for electors and candidates, and a separate Consolidated Revenue Fund for the Northwest Territories was set up within the Consolidated Revenue Fund of Canada.
The Carrothers Report recommended that northern residents be given a greater degree of self-government, but felt that the Northwest Territories should not be divided at that time. In 1967, the territorial government moved to the new capital of Yellowknife, as the Report had recommended. In 1970, the Northwest Territories Act was amended again and Council's elected membership increased to 10 and the appointed membership decreased from five to four. Council's term of office was increased to four years from three and the Commissioner-in-Council was authorized to set members' indemnities and allowances and the period in which Ottawa could disallow territorial legislation was cut from two years to one.
The Seventh Council, which included the first elected Dene member, two Inuit members and a Metis member, took office early in 1971. The first fully-elected Council since 1905 took office in 1975. This Council was given the authority to elect its own Speaker and to name two elected members to the Executive Committee (a third was added a year later). In 1979, the NWT Council was renamed the Legislative Assembly. As the chief political body it is composed of non-partisan elected officials representing all residents of the Northwest Territories.
Between 1980-1981, the Legislative Assembly provided all administrative and support services to the Assembly, to the Standing and Special Committees and to individual Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) throughout the year. Its budget included provision for all indemnities and allowances, including those related to the activities of the MLAs. Initially, the main task of the Legislative Assembly was to work toward responsible government and ultimately to attain provincehood for the Northwest Territories. The Clerk's office worked closely with the office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada during elections, when electoral districts were being established and members were being elected.
As the Legislative Assembly evolved, the Deputy Commissioner position was removed from the Executive in 1983. The Legislative Assembly budget increased and provided for additional activities of the Legislative Assembly, including retiring allowances for MLAs, the costs of holding sessions of the Assembly and the meetings of Standing and Special Committees. The Standing and Special have concentrated on such matters as the Constitution of Canada, Division of the Northwest Territories, and Constitutional Development in the Western portion of the Territories and Electoral District Boundaries.
Between 1990-1991, the mandate of the Legislative Assembly was as follows: The Speaker and Clerk of the Legislative Assembly were responsible for all activities of the Legislative Assembly. The administration of the Office of the Legislative Assembly and the Office of the Clerk adhered to the Executive Council Act and the Legislative Assembly Retiring Allowances Act. The Acts represented the legal mandate of the Legislative Assembly. The Management and Services Board, in accordance with the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act, provided the legal and administrative structure for the Legislative Assembly. The Office of the Clerk provided research, financial, administrative, committee, and public affairs support to members of the Legislative Assembly. Between 1992-1993, the Legislative Assembly Retiring Allowances Act, the Supplementary Retiring Allowances Act, the Elections Act and Official Languages Act were added to the legal mandate of the Legislative Assembly.
Prior to 1993, the Legislative Assembly operated from temporary and leased premises. With the opening of the new Legislative building in 1993, the services delivered by the Assembly expanded. The Clerk provided advice and support to the Speaker and Members on procedural and administrative matters, managed the Legislative Assembly offices, coordinated the provision of legal services to the Speaker, Members, Committees, Management and Services Board and coordinated the duties of the Sergeant-at-Arms and the Pages.
The House and Committee Services provided procedural advice to the Speaker, Chairmen, Committees and Members of the Assembly, managed support services, maintained house records, produced House documents, and managed the Hansard service and the language services, which included the translation of House documents.
The Research and Information Services provided research services to Members and Committees, provided information and reference services through the Legislative and Government Library, provided public information about the Legislative Assembly and assisted Members in the preparation of public information materials.
The Finance and Administration division provided financial and administrative support to the Legislative Assembly, human resource management services, coordinated the management of pension plan for Members, provided administrative support to Members and administrative and financial support to Office of the Languages Commissioner.
The Facilities Management division provided overall management of the Legislative Assembly building and facilities by providing security, maintenance and janitorial services.
The Elections NWT program provided for the administration of Elections and Plebiscites and the Office of the Languages Commissioner provided for the independent operation of the Language Commissioner.
In 1994-1995, the services provided by the Legislative Assembly were condensed to form the following programs. The Office of the Clerk, Office of the Speaker, Expenditures on Behalf of Members, Office of the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Official Languages.
The Office of the Clerk included the Clerk’s Office, Deputy Clerk’s Office, Finance and Administration, Research and Library Services, Sessions and Committees. Through these various units the Office of the Clerk managed and directed the Legislative Assembly Office and provided advice and support to the Speaker and Members on procedural and administrative matters, as well as provided visitor services, public information and language services. Through the Research and Library Section, research and reference services were provided to individual Members, Standing and Special Committees, and to the Clerk’s Office and Deputy Clerk’s Office. The Sessions and Committee Units provided funding for the administration of session, provision of Hansard service and funded the administration of all Committees of the Legislative Assembly. Between 1999-2000, the Finance and Administration section was renamed Corporate Services to include financial management, human resources, electronic data processing, office automation, information services and the overall management of the Legislative Building and its facilities. Between 2003-2004, the Research and Library Services was separated into two distinct functions: Research Services and Library Services.
The Office of the Speaker is responsible for developing policies on the overall control and operation of the Office of the Legislative Assembly as Chair of the Management and Services Board. The Speaker is the official representative of the Legislative Assembly at Provincial/Territorial, Federal and International functions.
The Expenditures on Behalf of Members activity provides allowances, per diems, indemnities, pension administration, as well as salaries for Member's constituency assistants.
The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer conducts and administers general elections, by-elections and plebiscites in the Northwest Territories according to legislation enacted by the Legislative Assembly. This office is responsible to educate and inform eligible electors and candidates in the Northwest Territories of their democratic rights accorded to them in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Commissioner of Official Languages is responsible for ensuring that the rights, status and privileges of all Official Languages in the Northwest Territories are complied with within the spirit of the Official Languages Act. The Languages Commissioner is responsible for tabling an annual report to the Legislative Assembly that details the activities undertaken and achieved by the office.
In 2004, the NWT Human Rights Commission was established by the enactment of the NWT Human Rights Act. Members of the Commission are appointed by the Legislative Assembly for a term of four years. The Director is an officer of the Commission and is also appointed by the Legislative Assembly for a four year term. Adjucation of complaints/disputes rests with the NWT Human Rights Adjudication Panel, a separate entity.