What was happening in the Northwest Territories in 1973?
As the world rings in 2023, half a century has now passed since 1973. We looked back to see what the Northwest Territories was like 50 years ago.
While the territory in 1973 spanned both the modern-day Northwest Territories and Nunavut, we’re focusing on life in what today’s residents would call the NWT.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. We’re bound to miss out some important events, and people alive at the time may have great stories from 1973 that we don’t know about. If that’s you, share your memories using the form at the bottom of the page.
All images on this page taken in 1973 come from the NWT Archives (a collection you can search for yourself online). Many images in the territorial archives were originally taken by staff of the Native Press, a newspaper formed in 1971 that remained operational until the 1990s.
Another newspaper, the Hay River Hub, was formed in 1973 – a year after the Yellowknifer newspaper was first published.
Two of the big NWT stories appearing both locally and nationally that year were the tale of Marten Hartwell and Judge William Morrow’s verdict in the Paulette case.
Hartwell, a pilot, had resorted to cannibalism as the eventual lone survivor of a plane crash while flying patients from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife.
The crash had happened in November 1972. The coroner’s inquest at which details of Hartwell’s survival emerged took place in 1973, leading to the New York Times headline Bush Pilot Tells of Cannibalism and a lengthy Maclean’s magazine dispatch.
Hartwell passed away in 2013. The Ottawa Citizen produced a special report, speaking to relatives of some of those involved in the crash, in 2017.
The Paulette case saw Smith’s Landing First Nation’s Francois Paulette and other Dene leaders file a legal caveat that helped to pave the way for the modern land claims process.
The leaders argued that when Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 were signed, the chiefs at the time had not intended to sign away their rights or their land.
In 1973, by attempting to register a caveat against more than a million square kilometres of land, the Dene leaders forced the question to be heard by the Supreme Court of the NWT.
Supreme Court Justice William Morrow elected to hear evidence in person by travelling to the communities in question and listening to Elders who had been present when the treaties were signed.
Morrow decided the caveat should stand, but his decision was later overturned by a higher court. However, part of Morrow’s ruling – that the Dene people continued to possess Indigenous rights to the land – was not questioned and became a partial victory, moving the NWT closer toward comprehensive land claims negotiations.
The Paulette case will be celebrated later in 2023 when the Dene National Assembly is hosted by the Smith’s Landing First Nation on the 50th anniversary of Morrow’s decision.
Elsewhere in 1973, Vic Mercredi sealed a sporting first for the Northwest Territories when he was drafted by the Atlanta Flames.
Mercredi became the first hockey player born and raised in the territory to be selected in the draft. He was chosen 16th in the first round and made his NHL debut a year later. Though he only played twice for the Flames, his career took him to Baltimore, Calgary, Sweden and Arizona. He was inducted into the NWT Sport Hall of Fame in 2013.
If the NWT had its share of colourful characters in 1973, the good news was that some of those characters could also watch TV in colour for the first time.
CFYK, the call letters for CBC TV in Yellowknife, became available in colour early in the year after being established in black and white six years earlier.
That wasn’t the only novelty in 1973. The NWT Chamber of Commerce came into being that year, and the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce adopted its current name (having previously been known as the city’s board of trade).
Fireweed Studio, the tiny log cabin that serves as a craft store at the edge of Yellowknife’s Somba K’e Park, first appeared in that location in 1973. The cabin was moved from Giant Mine by the YK Museum Society, having existed at the mine since 1938, and became one of Yellowknife’s first visitor centres.
Anyone travelling north to Yellowknife on Highway 3 would cross the Mackenzie River on the brand-new MV Merv Hardie – less than a year into its 40-year lifespan at the time – and reach a mining city very much under construction.
For example, 1973 was the year that initial work began on what would become a Yellowknife icon: the Robertson shaft at Con Mine and its instantly recognizable red-topped headframe.
Excavation began in the summer of 1973, the shaft was nearly 3,000 feet deep by 1975, and the depth had reached more than 5,000 feet when operations began in 1977.
Meanwhile, at Pine Point – a South Slave mining townsite that no longer exists – a shopping mall was added in 1973 as the population grew to 1,500 people. (For more on the NWT’s mining history, read Ryan Silke’s guide.)
Elsewhere in the Northwest Territories, Eddie Gruben launched a transport company in Tuktoyaktuk that remains operational today. In November 1973, Fort Resolution – the site of a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade post built in 1819 – was designated a National Historic Site of Canada for its role as “the oldest continuously occupied place with origins in the fur trade in the Northwest Territories.” Fort Simpson was formally incorporated as a village at the start of the year.
The first successful post-war motorized summer expedition across the Canol Trail took place in 1973. A team of seven Honda ATC90s – trikes sometimes referred to as the first modern ATV – made it from Ross River to Norman Wells along the trail, covering 589 km in 10 July days.
By the way, the minimum wage in the NWT in 1973? It went up! (To $2 an hour.)
In November 1973, the Canadian government joined Denmark, Norway, the Soviet Union and the United States in signing a landmark agreement on polar bear conservation. The agreement called for action to protect the bears’ ecosystem and banned unregulated sport hunting of polar bears, alongside hunting of the bears from aircraft or large boats.
(This may or may not be the place to mention that the Yellowknife Curling Club awarded in 1973, for the first time, four polar bear-skin rugs to the winners of its Sportsman bonspiel.)
Lastly, maybe a good omen for any readers in Inuvik: 1973 brought the warmest New Year’s Eve in the town’s history to this day. The temperature on December 31, 1973 in Inuvik? Five degrees Celsius. (In 1964 it had been -50C without the wind on the same day.)
How about your 1973 memories?
If you were alive to see 1973 in the Northwest Territories, we’d love to read your memories of that year.
Use the form below to send us any recollections that stand out. Note that by submitting anything using this form, you’re giving us consent to publish what you send and one of our team might be in touch to follow up.
Thanks for reading this article and submitting your own recollections – and have a happy new year.