Northerners, By the Numbers
The Northwest Territories is home to 42,000 people as of the 2016 census – barely one-thousandth of the Canadian population. Half of the population is Indigenous – here since time immemorial – while half come from elsewhere. Of the former, a wide range of cultures are represented. About nine percent are Métis, mostly concentrated on the south side of Great Slave Lake. Another 11 percent are Inuvialuit, the people of the far North. The Dene make up about 30 percent of the territorial population. And among those 13,000 or so Dene, there are five main groups: The Chipewyan around Lutselk’e on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, the Tłįchǫ up in the North Slave region communities near Behchoko and Whati, The Yellowknives who are north and northeast of Great Slave Lake, the Slavey — North Slavey live around the Deh Cho region and the South Slavey around the southwest of Great Slave Lake in communities like Fort Providence and Hay River, and the Sahtu Dene in the communities around Great Bear Lake.
This is a multilingual territory. The Northwest Territories boasts 11 official languages: Chipewyan, Cree, Tłįchǫ, Gwich’in, North Slavey, South Slavey, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun – and, of course, English and French. The territory has also welcomed immigrants from around the world, meaning other languages – from German to Tagalog – are spoken here. Almost everyone here speaks English, but pretty nearly half of us speak a second (or third, or fourth) language. All of which means the NWT has plenty of ways to say “welcome.”
Chipewyan: Márcı ją nuwe ghą núhdël
Gwich’in: Shòh hàh aanàii
Inuinnaqtun: Quana qaigaffi
Inuvialuktun: Quvianaqtusi qaigapsi
North Slavey: Máhsı hejǫ raxets’é ráwǝdǝ
South Slavey: Máhsı ejǫh nahxe tah anet’ı̨
Tłı̨chǫ: Sı̨nà, jǫ naxıghaèhda
Exquisite moose or caribou hide moccasins are available in every community, but the beading patterns will differ depending on what region you’re in. Some communities are famous for their tufting, others for fish scale art. Drumming and dancing is another constant with regional variations. The Yellowknives Dene Drummers sport intricately beaded vests made from tanned moose or caribou hide; in the Western Arctic, the Inuvialuit Drummers and Dancers wear fur-trimmed parkas.
What the NWT lacks in population, it makes up for in youth. The NWT is a young territory: barely 32 years old on average, which is far below the Canadian average. Almost one-quarter of residents in the NWT are under age 15. Barely one in 20 are older than 65.
From then to now
Before 12,000 B.C., most of the Northwest Territories was locked in a great sheet of ice, a mile or more deep. When the glaciers receded, they did so from west to east, opening the landscape to human settlement.
First here were the Dene, who’ve roamed the boreal forest for millennia. About 1,000 years ago they were joined by the Inuvialuit in the Mackenzie Delta and on the Arctic coast and islands. Fewer than 300 years ago, the Métis arrived – the vanguard of the fur trade. Settlement by Euro-Canadians stretches back barely a century – first Hudson Bay employees and missionaries, then whalers and RCMP, then oil-drillers, miners, and the government.
Many of the NWT’s communities, like Fort Resolution and Fort Simpson, originated centuries ago as trading posts. Some, such as Fort Smith, Hay River and Enterprise, got their start as transportation hubs. Norman Wells and Yellowknife were founded in resource extraction – oil and gold, respectively. Inuvik was a planned community, where Indigenous people were settled, ostensibly to provide them with modern services. Other communities, like Colville Lake and Wekweètì, began with the opposite impulse, as First Nations people sought a return to traditional life.