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Seats of Government (Capitals)

The Northwest Territories was created as a completely separate political jurisdiction on October 7, 1876. The first capital of the Northwest Territories was Fort Livingstone, which was located near the Manitoba border approximately one mile northwest of present day Pelly, Saskatchewan. Prior to being the provisional or temporary capital of the Northwest Territories, Fort Livingstone was the headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police. Soon after the police barracks were completed at that site, a large snake den was discovered nearby. Fortunately, the creatures were of a harmless variety. However, their constant presence was not appreciated by the human inhabitants of the Fort. On one occasion, John Oliver, the contractor for the construction of Fort Livingstone, organized his workmen into ten-man teams and had a snake-catching contest. The winning team caught 1,136 snakes, "not including small ones."*

From the Sketch by Henri Julien, Courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives Board (R-B3191)

Before the new Lieutenant Governor arrived at Fort Livingstone, John Oliver, his men, and the North-West Mounted Police garrison were ordered to proceed to Battleford, which is located in present-day Saskatchewan, and construct new police barracks and a building for the territorial government at that location. Many authorities feel that Battleford was selected because it was thought that it would be on the route of the anticipated national railway.

David Laird, the first Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories, arrived at Fort Livingstone on November 10, 1876. He and his four-man Northwest Council convened their First Session at that location on March 8, 1877.

Courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives Board (R-A2287)

In 1877, Lieutenant Governor Laird and the remainder of the territorial government moved to Battleford and began to use the building that had been especially constructed for their use at that location. This building was commonly referred to as "Government House" and is located high on the south bank of the Battle River near the junction of the Battle and Saskatchewan Rivers. The Council Chambers and the Lieutenant Governor's quarters were both located in Government House. Although it has been modified considerably, this building still exists and was used as a seminary by the Roman Catholic Oblate Order until 1972. The Judge's house, the Registrar's house, and the Land Titles Office were located nearby. The North-West Mounted Police post was located on the plain below between the Battle and Saskatchewan Rivers.

From August 30 to September 1, 1881, the territorial capital at Battleford was visited by the Governor General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne. (The Province of Alberta is named after his wife, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta.) As well as taking part in many other activities during his short visit, the Governor General attended an Indian Council. The Native leaders' principal request, on that occasion, was for "more grub." Anyone who is familiar with the problems faced by the Native population, at that time, will understand why. The Governor General promised that their needs, in this regard, would be met.

Lieutenant Governor Dewdney, who succeeded David Laird on December 3, 1881, and the remainder of the territorial government moved to Regina in 1882. It was now known that the route of the national railway would pass through that community. The decision to move the territorial capital from Battleford to Regina was made in June, 1882, by Lieutenant Governor Dewdney in consultation with W.C. Van Horne, the General Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, and Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. It became effective through an order-in-council dated March 27, 1883. Many citizens were upset by this decision. It was alleged that the Lieutenant Governor was motivated by the fact that he owned property in Regina.

Courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives Board (R-B1963)

A building was constructed on Dewdney Avenue in Regina for the territorial government. The remains of this structure have been declared an historic site by the Province of Saskatchewan. By the end of his term of service as Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories, Edgar Dewdney had managed to expand the government's staff from his predecessor's full-time Clerk and part-time legal advisor to twelve permanent staff positions and a number of part-time positions. This number does not include The Board of Education which employed three full-time employees and a number of part-time employees.

Several communities were interested in being designated Alberta's capital. In the 1880's, Calgary had even tried to lure the territorial capital away from Regina. However, the contest for the capital of Alberta began in earnest after the 1904 federal general election. During the related campaign, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier stated that if his Liberal government was returned to office, he would ensure that the Northwest Territories was given provincial status.

As one would expect, Calgary and Edmonton, the two largest cities in Alberta, were the chief contenders. Calgary had elected Conservative Maitland S. McCarthy to represent them in the federal House of Commons. Edmonton returned Liberal Frank Oliver. Maitland S. McCarthy was a new Member of Parliament whereas Frank Oliver had eight years previous experience as a Member of Parliament and on April 1, 1905, was appointed Minister of the Interior. Most political observers would have been very concerned regarding Calgary's prospects of being designated the future capital of Alberta at this point; however, that city was still confident that it had made the right choice by electing a Conservative to represent their interests in Ottawa.

Red Deer felt that it was the logical compromise between the two chief protaganists, particularly since it was located approximately half-way between Calgary and Edmonton. If Calgary couldn't be the seat of the new provincial government, that city would support nearby Banff as a "neutral" alternative. Medicine Hat was interested as well; however, its Member of Parliament, Liberal Walter Scott, discouraged that city from pursuing the matter. Lethbridge did not express a strong interest in being capital. Several other smaller communities, Athabasca Landing, Blackfalds, and Vegreville, to name a few, also expressed an interest in being designated capital. However, none of these was given serious consideration.

Following a considerable amount of lobbying by all of the major contenders, Edmonton was designated the provisional capital of Alberta when the related legislation was given Royal Assent (i.e. Alberta Act, July 20, 1905). The Act stated, however, that this designation would stand "unless or until the Lieutenant Governor in Council of the said province otherwise directs."

Having lost the first round, Calgary now set its sights on being designated the capital by the new provincial Legislature. However, early in 1905, Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier assigned the task of establishing Alberta's new electoral districts (i.e. constituencies) to Edmontonian Frank Oliver and Peter Talbot, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Strathcona. Although Red Deer was in the Strathcona electoral district, Peter Talbot lived in Lacombe and did not support the designation of Red Deer as capital of Alberta. Red Deer lobbied for this designation directly with Ottawa.

At the conclusion of their deliberations, Frank Oliver and Peter Talbot recommended that northern Alberta be given thirteen seats and that southern Alberta be given twelve. At that point, representatives of southern Alberta demanded a judicial review. They were unsuccessful in this regard.

E. Brown Collection, Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta

When the first Alberta general election took place on November 9, 1905, the Liberals won twenty-three of the twenty-five seats in the provincial Legislature. Feeling confident of his government's strength, Premier Alexander C. Rutherford decided that the location of the permanent capital would be determined by an open vote in the House rather than by order-in-council. Matters were made more difficult for Calgary when the Premier appointed a representative of southern Alberta Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. (The Speaker does not normally vote in the Legislature.) On April 25, 1906, William H. Cushing, Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Calgary electoral district moved that "the seat of Government of this Province should be fixed permanently at the City of Calgary." His motion was seconded by Charles A. Stuart, the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Gleichen. Eight Members voted for this motion and sixteen voted against it. It is interesting to note that three Members from southern Alberta voted against the motion. Motions favoring Red Deer and Banff were also put forward, but were later withdrawn. Consequently, Edmonton remained the capital of Alberta by federal legislation.


* Chaimers, John W., Laird of the West, Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1981, pp. 63-64.

EDITOR'S NOTE: During the period 1869 to 1876, when the Lieutenant Governors of Rupert's Land and Manitoba were responsible for the Northwest Territories, the seat of government was at Fort Garry and later, at Winnipeg. - D.B.M.

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