19 Territorial Regulations

The North

Canada’s contemporary north consists of three territories: the Yukon, the Northwest Territories (NWT) and Nunavut.  The contemporary north is also geographically defined by the 60th parallel. Over the centuries the borders and names have evolved as has the most current definition of the north as north of the 60th. From the late 1790s to modern times, the boundaries have changed.  A very, very brief post contact history (Canada, 2020) (Nichlson, 2015):

  • 1791 – Ruperts land is declared by the king of England.  This later becomes owned by the Hudson Bay Company
  • 1873 – NWT covers most of Canada including Alberta, Saskatchewan, most of Manitoba and the northern parts of Ontario and Quebec
  • 1880 – The United Kingdom as it is know today transfers ownership of the arctic islands archipelago to Canada
  • 1898 – The NWT is comprised of eight districts.  Also the Yukon is created
  • 1905 – Alberta and Saskatchewan are created, Manitoba expands and the NWT has four districts
  • 1949 – Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec have grown to their present size and the NWT now consists of three districts
  • 1999 – Nunavut is created as part of a land settlement agreement

As Canadian territories, the Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut do not have constitutionally guaranteed authorities.  Their authorities are devolved from the federal government.  As Indigenous land claims have been settled, territorial authorities also reference the land claims agreements.

As the NWT and Nunavut used to be one territory, some of their laws have remained very similar.  Neither NWT nor Nunavut have a political party system.  However, the Yukon does have a political party system


Nunavut is an interesting development of the Canadian legal systems.  On July 9, 1993 the land claims settlement was ratified by both Canada and the Indigenous peoples of Nunavut.  Nunavut was created and the name translates to “our land”.  Nunavut adopted a consensus style of government and there are no political parties.  Representatives are elected and the premier is picked by consensus of the representatives. A simple majority is required to pass legislation (Kulchyski, P., 2017).

Acts and regulations often refer to the lands claims settlement.  Also, interestingly Nunavut and the Northwest Territories share some of the same legal structures and history of their acts.  The environmental act, Environmental Protection Act, RSNWT (Nu) 1988, c E-7 is one of those with a shared history.  The wildlife act, Wildlife Act, SNu 2003, c 26,  is one that refers extensively to the settlement agreement concepts.

Nunavut has a Commissioner who completes the ceremonial duties as the King’s representative that might be completed by the the similar position of the Lieutenant Governor in the provinces (Commissioner, 2021).


Yukon’s government today is an elected legislated assembly.  The Yukon has a political party system with the current three main political parties being the Liberals, the Yukon Party and the NDP.   The electoral system is a first past the post system as elsewhere in Canada (Yukon, 2022).

Yukon also has a Commissioner.  The Commissioner’s role is largely ceremonial with similarities to the Lieutenant-Governor of the provinces. The Commissioner signs all legislation that has been approved by the legislative (Commission of Yukon, 2022)

The Yukon has an environmental act, Environment Act, RSY 2002, c 76, that covers many things from storage tanks to waste.  The latest regulation, Reduction of Single-use Bags Regulation, YOIC 2021/131 is to reduce the amount of single use plastic bags in the Yukon (Yukon, 2022).

Northwest Territories (NWT)

The NWT is also an interesting regulatory regime. It’s legislative assembly is similar to Nunavut as it a consensuses model.  All members of the assembly are elected as independents, as there are no political parties. On election the members meet in caucus and the speaker is elected by caucus.  The premier is then elected by caucus after those interested in being premier make speeches.  Cabinet members are elected in a similar fashion.  A simple majority is required to pass legislation.  The premier or a cabinet minister can be removed by a vote of no-confidence.

Many authorities have been devolved to the NWT government. from the federal government  Other authorities are linked to Land Claims Settlement.

Environmental assessment is divided into two areas:  The Inuvialuit Settlement Agreement area (sometimes called the western Arctic) and the rest of the territory.

The NWT also has a Commissioner as well.  The Commissioners duties are very similar to Lieutenant Governor of the provinces (NWT, n.d.).

The NWT has an environmental act, the Environmental Protection Act R.S.N.W.T. 1988,c.E-7, to manage permits, wastes and spills.  And similarly to Nunavut, the NWT has a wildlife act, Wildlife Act, RSNWT 2013, c 30 (which was a renewal in 2013 and replaced the 1988 act) , that is heavily constructed from constitutional rights.

Inuvialuit Settlement Region

The Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) was created in 1984 when the federal government and the Inuvialuit signed the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, n.d.).  The ISR is interesting as it has many self governing authorities and straddles both the NWT and part of the Yukon.

International Tensions

The Canadian north is also interesting because it has several international tensions, some more serious than the others.

Hans Island

This dispute was over a tiny island between Canada and Greenland.  While the jurisdiction of territorial waters between Canada and Denmark in name of Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) have full agreement, the rock did not have agreement.  For many years successive Danish or Canadian expeditions, occasionally military patrols, would raise their respective flag and leave a bottle of whiskey for the next visitor.  In 2022, the conflict was resolved and a line drawn down the middle of the island (Hofverberg E, 2022).  Will practice of leaving the whiskey continue?

Yukon/Alaska Border in the Beaufort Sea

Canada and the United States have disagreements over the calculation of the border between Alaska and Yukon in the Beaufort Sea.  The dispute became relevant as oil and gas companies were interested in offshore drilling the Beaufort Sea (Griffiths, S. 2010).

The dispute centers on the difference in calculation of the border.  Canada relies on a contract drawn up by Great Britain and Russia, the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1825 (Breese, 2013) .

The Northwest Passage

Perhaps the most serious dispute is an international dispute over the fabled northwest passage.  The northwest passage, if feasible would reduce shipping traffic from china by up to 7000 kilometers (Fu and Jiang, 2020).  To current times said in context of 2022, the dispute has been a moot point because ice prevents the route from being feasible.  But with climate change, ice patterns have changed significantly and it recedes quicker with the extant being significantly less.  Thus making the passage likely to be relevant in the near future.

Under international law, the passage could be declared an international strait, which would allow ships of any country to pass through the islands with no claim of Canada on rights of passage or fee. Essentially this would allow ships to pass through Canada’s archipelago of islands in the north with no Canadian oversight.   The key to the claim is understanding whether the continental shelf is located between the islands of the archipelago.  If the continental shelf is there, more weight is given to Canada’s claim the passage is in Canadian waters.  To prove or disprove the claim, Canada and the United States have been working on surveys of the waters (Griffiths, S. 2010).

Two distinct areas of environmental concern exist if the NWT passage is an international strait;

  • Carbon black, emitted as soot from passing ships.  In open international water, ships tend to burn the cheapest fuel which is a heavy bunker oil.  Bunker burns with with a high content of carbon soot.  As the soot settles on ice or snow pack, the snow albedo, or its ability to reflect light, is changed, adding another feedback loop to the climate change of the arctic.
  • Emergency response and oil spills.  The Canadian arctic is not prepared with either infrastructure or trained response teams to respond to large scale oil spills.  Should more traffic become a reality, spill response will be a major issue.

Section Conclusion

In the Canada’s north, land claim settlements dominate the jurisdiction and any regulatory discussion.  Land claims are mention in many major legislative works.  The regulatory regime can become confusing, with a different political system (consensus based) in NWT and Nunavut, while Yukon resembles provincial arrangements.  The territories have some structural parallels in law and government, but over all navigating the rules can be complex.  There is also a number of legacy issues in the North including military bases and contaminated sites from past mining activities.

In the near future two issues may dominate regulatory discussions; defense and climate change.

Learning Questions

  • Can you find a wildlife management act in all three territories
  • in 2023 what is an international stressor on the Northwest passage?


Breese (1995) Interpretation of the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1825 and the establishment of the Alaska-Canada boundary. Survey Review, 33:257,161-176.  DOI: 10.1179/sre.1995.33.257.161

Canada. (2020). Historical boundaries. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/historical-boundaries-canada.html

Commissioner. (2021) Home page. Retrieved from http://www.commissioner.gov.nu.ca/en/Home.aspx#:~:text=Hon.,by%20Chief%20Justice%20Neil%20Sharkey

Environment Act, RSY 2002, c 76,

Environmental Protection Act R.S.N.W.T. 1988,c.E-7

Environmental Protection Act, RSNWT (Nu) 1988

Wildlife Act, SNu 2003, c 26

Fu J., Jiang D. (2020). Canada’s sovereignty over the northwest passage: who really owns it. Storymaps.  Retrieved from https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/f2e7934cab2148da8400af23021f0fa9J.

Griffiths, s. (2010). US-Canada arctic border dispute key to maritime riches. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-10834006

Hofverberg E, 2022, The Hans Island “Peace” agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland Retrieved from https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2022/06/the-hans-island-peace-agreement-between-canada-denmark-and-greenland/

Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. (n.d.) Home page. Retrieved from https://www.irc.inuvialuit.com/

Kulchyski, P. (2017).  The creation of Nunavut.  Canada’s History.  Retrieved from https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/politics-law/the-creation-of-nunavut

Nichlson N. (2015). Historical boundaries of Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/territorial-evolution

Northwest Territories. (n.d.). Commissioner. Retrieved from https://www.commissioner.gov.nt.ca/role/

Nunavut. (2021). Commissioner of Nunavut. Retrieved from http://www.commissioner.gov.nu.ca/en/Home.aspx#:~:text=Hon.,by%20Chief%20Justice%20Neil%20Sharkey.

Reduction of Single-use Bags Regulation, YOIC 2021/131

Yukon Commissioner. (2022). About page. Retrieved from https://commissionerofyukon.ca/

Yukon. (2022). How government works. Retrieved from https://yukon.ca/en/how-government-works

Wildlife Act, RSNWT 1988, c W-4 – repealed

Wildlife Act, SNWT 2013, c 3

Wildlife Act, SNu 2003, c 26



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Regulations and the Environment Copyright © 2023 by Tim Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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