The Far North of Canada is one of North America's last great wilderness areas. The Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern British Columbia are home to the Inuit, Inuvialuit, and northern First Nations peoples like the Dene, as well as vast herds of wildlife and thousands of square miles of tundra and stunted subarctic forest. For centuries, names such as the Klondike, Hudson's Bay, and the Northwest Passage have conjured up powerful images of rugged determination in an untamed and harsh wilderness. For an area so little visited and so distant, the North has long played an integral role in the history and imagination of the Western world.
Yet the North has been changing rapidly, creating a whole pattern of paradoxes. The Arctic is a hotbed of mineral, oil, gas, and diamond exploration. Jobs and schools have brought aboriginal people from their hunting camps to town, where they live in modern, centrally heated homes. A minority of people still support their families with ancestral hunting and artisan skills, but most Northerners are engaged in the wage economy and pursue wild game and marine mammals -- an activity that remains an integral part of their culture -- on weekends and days off.
Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, and Métis -- the latter being offspring of European and aboriginal couples -- make up the majority of the North's population. All of Canada's indigenous peoples were originally nomadic, traveling enormous distances in pursuit of migrating animals. And though the Inuit no longer live in igloos, these snow houses are still built as temporary shelters. Survival is the key word for Aboriginal Canadians. They learned to survive in conditions that seem unimaginably harsh to more southerly peoples, relying on skills and technologies that become more wondrous the better you know them. Early European explorers quickly learned that, in order to stay alive, they had to adopt those skills and technologies as best they could. Those who refused to listen to the traditional knowledge of the elders rarely survived in the great Canadian North.
Norse merchants and explorers traveling from Greenland may have been the first non-aboriginal visitors to the Canadian North, as long as 800 years ago, but the first non-aboriginal known to have penetrated the region was Martin Frobisher. His written account of meeting the Inuit, over 400 years old, is the earliest on record. At about the same time, European whalers, hunting whales for their oil, were occasionally forced ashore by storms or shipwrecks, and depended on the Inuit and Inuvialuit knowledge of the land and sea, and their hospitality, for survival. This legendary hospitality, extended to any stranger who came to them, remains an outstanding characteristic of the Inuit. Western Europeans began to move into the Canadian Arctic in greater number during the "fur rush" of the late 18th century. In the wake of the fur hunters and traders came Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries, who built churches and opened schools.
For most of its recorded history, the Far North was governed from afar, first by Great Britain, then by the Hudson's Bay Company, and from 1867, by the new Canadian government in Ottawa. At that time, the Northwest Territories included all of the Yukon, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and huge parts of other provinces. Then, in 1896, gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek in the Midwestern Yukon region of Klondike. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Yukon in a matter of months, giving birth to Dawson City in northern Yukon, Whitehorse (later the capital) in south-central Yukon, and a dozen other tent communities, many of which eventually went bust along with the gold veins. The Yukon Gold Rush was the greatest in history; prospectors washed more than C$500,000 in gold out of the gravel banks along the Klondike before industrial mining moved in to reap in the millions. With its new wealth and population, the Yukon split off from the rest of the Northwest Territories in 1898.
The Northwest Territories didn't receive its own elected government until 1967, when the center of government was moved from Ottawa to the new territorial capital of Yellowknife and a representative assembly was elected. In 1999, the eastern section of the Northwest Territories, almost 2 million sq. km (about 772,000 sq. miles), became a separate and autonomous territory known as Nunavut (meaning "our land" in the Inuit language of Inuktitut), with its capital of Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) on Baffin Island. The rest of the pre-Nunavut Northwest Territories -- 1.2 million sq. km (463,322 sq. miles) of land that contains the drainage of the Mackenzie River, a sizeable portion of Arctic coast, the Great Slave and Great Bear lakes, and a few Arctic island territories -- has retained the Northwest Territories name.