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How The North Fought Off The South

How The North Fought Off The South

Prairie leaders wanted to annex the territories. But Yellowknife's mayor beat them at their own game.
By Randy Freeman
Dec 12
From the December 2011 Issue

If you’re David battling Goliath, sometimes you just need a slingshot -– or, in the case of the Northwest Territories, a playful sense of humour and lots of media coverage. Thank goodness Doug Finlayson and Ted Horton had both. In 1961, the two Yellowknife leaders launched a comedic grass-roots movement that may well have saved the NWT from getting swallowed alive by the land-hungry Prairie provinces.

Finlayson was the vice president of Yellowknife’s board of trade and Horton was the city’s mayor as well as the editor of its newspaper, News of the North. At first, both men were likely pleased by the political developments of 1958. That year, in the weeks leading up to the federal election, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker revealed a major plank in his platform: to aggressively develop Canada’s North. According to Diefenbaker’s “Northern Vision,” the NWT and Yukon were the nation’s future: a trove of resources just waiting to be tapped. Ottawa would build roads and railways and airports and bridges to the region and its wealth would be unlocked. In return, he promised that the territories would earn not just riches and infrastructure, but also provincial status.

Diefenbaker’s election victory was dramatic, with his Progressive Conservatives grabbing more than three-quarters of the seats in Parliament. To this day, it’s heralded as the most decisive win in federal electoral history. Less well-remembered was the Prairies’ reaction to Dief’s promise that the Yukon and NWT would become provinces. It was a resounding, “Hey, wait a minute!”

In the minds of many Western leaders, the NWT and Yukon were being held in reserve for the future expansion of the existing provinces. British Columbia would reach north to take the Yukon; Alberta would extend all the way down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean; Saskatchewan and Manitoba would split the Keewatin, today’s western Nunavut. Who would get the Arctic Islands was anyone’s guess.

These expansionist ambitions were rooted not just in greed, but history. The Northwest Territories had once sprawled across most of Canada before the lion’s share was given away to the provinces. In 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved entirely from the NWT. A few years later, Ontario, Quebec and once-tiny Manitoba all expanded their boundaries northward. Surely, felt many provincial leaders, the rest of the North would eventually serve a similar purpose.

In 1875, the Prairie provinces barely existed and the NWT sprawled across most of Canada. Bit by bit, it ceded ground to the south, the Yukon, and, most recently, Nunavut. Courtesy Derek Hayes

Bucking this trend was a prime minister who saw a different Northern future. In a 1960 speech to an Ontario gathering of chambers of commerce, Diefenbaker suggested that a few years down the road, perhaps during the 1967 Canadian centennial, new provinces would be formed in the North. In a great act of nation-building, the NWT and Yukon would cut the apron strings binding them to Ottawa and stand proud as equals in the Canadian family of provinces.

To this, Westerners responded with derision. History may have whetted their appetites for expansion, but they argued their case with dollars and cents. An editorial that ran in several Alberta newspapers claimed turning the NWT into a province would be “a frightening waste of money.” The territory’s small population – just 21,000 souls – was far too small to put it on par with Ontario or Alberta or even P.E.I. Perhaps the NWT would be ready for provincehood in another half-century – but certainly not now.

The premier of Manitoba, Duff Roblin, then upped the rhetoric a notch, announcing his province would soon be asking Ottawa to stretch its boundary northward. They planned to snatch the eastern Barrenlands from the NWT; the Inuit of Rankin Inlet, Arviat and Baker Lake would be governed from Winnipeg, more than a thousand kilometres to the south. To most Northerners, this meant war.

Finlayson was first into battle – and his weapon was his razor-sharp wit. In March 1961 he wrote in News of the North: “Consider, if you will, the injustices that were done some 50 or 60 years ago when those portions of the Northwest Territories ... were taken from the NWT and divided ... . [T]he time has come to press for the righting of an old wrong. Citizens of the territories unite! Let us now join in a united voice and make our feelings known. Return our lost lands to us so that we can fulfill our destiny and at the same time contribute to the growth and the development of Canada. LET OUR SLOGAN BE ‘SOUTH TO 49.’”

While Finlayson was rallying the troops at home, Mayor Horton, in an open letter to Prime Minister Diefenbaker and the premiers of the Prairie provinces, laid out the conditions for reunification. “We are prepared, under suitable arrangements, to welcome these lost brethren of ours back under the same generous wing we now share only with the Indians, Eskimo, muskox and caribou. Of course, we would expect some compensation for what has happened since the exodus, but these arrangements would be subject to negotiation.”

And to show that he wasn’t just feathering his own nest – or at least that of the town of Yellowknife – Horton suggested that the more centrally located community of Fort Smith become the capital of the re-united NWT. Anticipating that people would ask what to do with the Prairies’ defunct assemblies, he suggested: “Legislative buildings in Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg could become museums where scholars could study the results of unfortunate experiments in government – or they could be used as storage for surplus grain.”

Invitations to come North to discuss this proposal went out to Diefenbaker and the premiers. They had only two weeks to accept, pack their bags and find their way to Yellowknife. A high-level conference on NWT expansion would take place on March 25, during Yellowknife’s annual Dog Derby races.

Some Yellowknifers grumbled that having an airplane load of politicians – not to mention all the aides and minders and reporters – would be a real downer during the end-of-winter celebrations. And besides, it might upset the dogs.

For Horton, Finlayson and all others who got the joke, the Dog Derby would proceed as planned. There was no expectation that Dief and the Prairie leaders would come North to discuss reunification. They didn’t even think the invitations would get a response. But there were a few surprises.

Russ Paulley, the leader of Manitoba’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (the precursor to the NDP), was all for reuniting the North. He wrote to say, “Why, this would turn the clock back 100 years, and what’s wrong with that? I’m for the idea if this Horton can bring back Klondike Kate and Sam McGee.” Manitoba’s opposition leader, Douglas Campbell, head of the Liberal-Progressives, couldn’t resist trying to score a few political points against the Tories. He wrote, “I don’t know anything about Mr. Horton, but I’ll take a chance on him running the country better than Prime Minister Diefenbaker or Premier Duff Roblin of Manitoba.”

Responding, too, was Alberta’s premier, Ernest Manning. After reading Horton’s invitation he derided it as a political stunt, sourly stating that the “colourful mayor of Yellowknife is trying to promote greater interest in the annual Dog Derby there. … I think we are content to preserve our present status for the time being, but we are grateful for Mr. Horton’s interest in our affairs.”

Diefenbaker didn’t reply, but then, he didn’t really need to. His “Northern Vision” spoke for itself. Under his leadership, the NWT got a railway and road connections to the south, and these did indeed spur resource development.

But as for the longer-term goal of provincial status for the NWT and the Yukon, it never came to be. In the 1963 election, Diefenbaker’s once-mighty Tories were knocked from power by the Liberals. Under the new Lester B. Pearson government, the pace of Northern development slowed. Talk of Northern provincehood vanished completely. But then, so did the idea of northward expansion by the Prairie provinces. For Horton and Finlayson, Goliath had been slain.