What (and Where) Are Canada’s Three Territories?

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Like many other countries in North America, Canada is separated into different regions. The United States and Mexico call their regions “states,” while Canada uses the term “provinces.” In addition to its 10 provinces, however, Canada also has three territories. Here’s what you need to know about the territories of Canada.

Territories Versus Provinces

City skyline of Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Credit: Alix Kreil/ Shutterstock

Canadian provinces are similar to states in the U.S. They each have their own governing bodies that are allowed certain exclusive powers guaranteed to them by the Canadian constitution, while the federal government retains the rest of the power. Canada is split into 10 provinces:

  • Alberta
  • British Columbia
  • Manitoba
  • New Brunswick
  • Newfoundland and Labrador
  • Nova Scotia
  • Ontario
  • Prince Edward Island
  • Quebec
  • Saskatchewan

Territories differ from provinces in that they aren’t guaranteed powers by the constitution. All responsibilities and powers are given directly by the federal government. The territories don’t govern themselves and are largely ruled by parliament. There are three territories:

  • Yukon
  • Northwest Territories
  • Nunavut

Yukon

Scenic snowcapped mountains and green fields of flowers in the Yukon territory, Canada
Credit: Gagandeep Ghuman/ iStock

The three territories make up the north and northwest regions of Canada. They contain some of the most rugged terrain and harshest climates in the country. Yukon, which was formerly known as Yukon Territory, is the westernmost Canadian territory. To the west is the U.S. state of Alaska and to the south is the province of British Columbia.

Yukon features mostly unspoiled wilderness that consists of nothing but massive mountains and forests. The climate varies drastically throughout the year. Summer highs can reach the mid-90s in Fahrenheit, while the winters can reach the chilling lows of -60 degrees. Annual precipitation is light and accumulates to only about 10 inches per year.

Due to its harsh climate and terrain, Yukon is sparsely populated. Although the territory is larger than the entire state of California, there are only around 40,000 people who live there. Roughly two-thirds of the population lives in the largest city, Whitehorse. Mining and oil drilling are the two primary industries there.

Northwest Territories

Aerial view of river running through rock canyon in the Northwest Territories, Canada
Credit: vadimgouida/ iStock

For most of the 20th century, the Northwest Territories encompassed more than one-third of the entire area of Canada until Nunavut was established in 1999. Today, it’s the second largest Canadian territory featuring over 500,000 square miles of land. It lies to the west of Yukon and includes some of the islands to the north.

The Northwest Territories is separated into two regions. Dense forests prevail in the south-central regions. As you get farther north, however, trees become more scarce and the landscape changes into arctic tundra. The region where the change occurs is called the timberline. Below the timberline, average summer temperatures hover around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter temperatures plunge to an average of -27 degrees. Above the timberline, winter temperatures are similar but summer temperatures rarely break 50 degrees.

Like Yukon, the Northwest Territories is also sparsely populated with a little over 40,000 inhabitants. About one-third of the population is Native American, one-tenth is Inuit, and the remainder is of European descent. Most of the territory's economy is driven by the harvesting of natural resources such as gold, minerals, and natural gas. Farming is difficult in the territory due to its harsh climates. Even in the southern regions, there are only about 70 frost-free days per year.

Nunavut

Evening light on Mount Thor in Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut, Baffin Island
Credit: Ed Dods/ Shutterstock

Nunavut is the newest and largest of the Canadian territories. It was established in 1999 after the Northwest Territories was split in two. It encompasses over 800,000 square miles of land, which is about the size of Alaska and California combined! It stretches from the Northwest Territories in the west to the northern and eastern extents of Canada’s borders. If you go any farther north, you’re going to run into Santa Claus at the North Pole.

The region consists of mostly arctic tundra with very few trees. Since Nunavut is entirely within the arctic zone, the climate is cold and harsh. Daily averages in the winter rarely break -22 degrees Fahrenheit and some of the northern islands never get above -31 degrees. In the summer, highs barely hit 50 degrees in the southern regions and are about 10 degrees cooler in the north. Most of the ground is covered in permafrost or glaciers and almost all of the precipitation (which is only about eight inches annually) is snow.

Many people who live in Nunavut are of Inuit descent and live in small, remote villages along the coast. Despite the large size of the territory, fewer than 40,000 people reside there, which makes it one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world. The largest city in the territory, Iqaluit, only has around 7,700 inhabitants.

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