When European incursions into the area began, they encountered the hunting and fishing Inuit and Dene. Vikings from Greenland may have been the first Europeans to venture into the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories, now Nunavut. Sir Martin Frobisher was the first in a long line of explorers to seek a Northwest Passage, but it was Henry Hudson who discovered the gateway to the Northwest (Hudson Bay) in 1610.
For several decades the Hudson's Bay Company sent trader-explorers through the northern sea lanes and along the coast, and in 1771, Samuel Hearne walked from Hudson Bay and descended the Coppermine River. In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie, exploring for the North West Company, journeyed to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Sir John Franklin made scientific expeditions to the Arctic Northwest in the first half of the 19th cent., obtaining valuable geographical data.
The area that is now the Northwest Territories and Nunavut was part of the vast lands sold by the Hudson's Bay Company to the new Canadian confederation in 1870. Some of those lands were added to the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The province of Manitoba was carved from them in 1870, and Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, all south of 60°N. Yukon had become separate in 1898. The boundaries of the Northwest Territories were then set in 1912 and remained fixed until the creation of Nunavut in 1999.
Since the 1982 patriation of the Canadian constitution (see Canada Act), several land claims by native peoples have been making their way through the courts and the federal government. In 1992, Northwest Territories residents voted to divide the territory roughly along ethnic lines, with the Inuit in the east and the Dene in the west. The new territory of Nunavut, dominated by the Inuit, came into existence on Apr. 1, 1999. This split the Northwest Territories along a zigzag line running from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border through the Arctic Archipelago to the North Pole. Other native groups with claims are the Métis and the Inuvialuit. Joe Handley became the Territories' premier in Dec., 2003.
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