I Muskrat You a Question: How Did Muskrat Farming End Up in the Northwest Territories Lands Act?

The Northwest Territories Lands Act, SNWT 2014, c 13, grants the Government of the Northwest Territories the authority to sell, lease, licence, or dispose of territorial lands. There is only one express prohibition regarding the sale of territorial lands:

            Section 8: No territorial lands suitable for muskrat farming shall be sold.

Of all the prohibitions imaginable in the Northwest Territories, a prohibition related to muskrat farming seems quite puzzling. I was intrigued about the history of this prohibition, and set out to find out why it exists.

Muskrats are a fairly large rodent that are commonly found in the Northwest Territories. Muskrats are trapped for use in the commercial fur industry. In the 1920s, Muskrat fur was sold as a less expensive alternative to mink fur under the trade name “Hudson Seal.” In the 1923-1924 season, four million muskrats across Canada were trapped for their pelts. There are a few references to muskrat farms opening in British Columbia and Ontario in the 1920s and 1930s, however, muskrat farming has never replaced muskrat trapping. So why does the NWT have a prohibition on the sale of lands that would be suitable for muskrat farming?

On April 1, 2014, the Northwest Territories took over responsibility for territorial land and resources from the federal government, and the Northwest Territories Lands Act came into force. This legislation mirrors the federal legislation, the Territorial Lands Act, RSC 1985 c. T-7, including “No territorial lands suitable for muskrat farming shall be sold.”

The federal Territorial Lands Act was first enacted in 1950, and repealed and replaced three other acts: the Irrigation Act, RSC 1927 c 104, the Reclamation Act, RSC 1927 c 175, and the Dominion Lands Act, RSC 1927 c 113 – none of which contain any references to muskrats. All versions of the Territorial Lands Act from 1950 to the present all include the section: “No territorial lands suitable for muskrat farming shall be sold.”

There are no records of muskrat farming being debated at the House of Commons or discussed at a House of Commons committee during the Bill stages of the Territorial Lands Act. The section on muskrat farming was raised in a Senate debate by Senator Crerar, who stated:

I observe by section 5 of the bill that no territorial lands suitable for muskrat farming shall be sold. This is a wise provision, but it may be well to get information on the reservation of other lands, which might be suitable for maintaining the native populations of these areas. 

Senator Crerar raised issues regarding conservation, trapping, and provisions for the Indigenous populations. Senator Crerar concluded: “I have no doubt that we shall get further information upon the point when the bill is considered in committee.” There are no records of muskrat farming being discussed at the Senate committee.

There is one clue about how muskrat farming weaseled its way into the Territorial Lands Act. The Senate Bills from 1950 includes an explanatory note about the proposed section:

5. (1) No territorial lands suitable for muskrat farming shall be sold.

Section 5. Subsection (1) of this section is new and is similar to a provision in the Crown Lands Act of the Province of Manitoba, Chapter 48, Revised Statutes of Manitoba, 1940, Section 6.

Section 6 of the Manitoba Crowns Lands Act RSM 1940 c 48 states:

No Crown lands shall be sold for muskrat farming.

Manitoba prohibited Crown land being sold for muskrat farming in 1930. There are no records of the debates of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba from this time, as Manitoba began publishing Hansard (the official transcript of the debates) in 1958. This prohibition may have been enacted to preserve the livelihoods of trappers, or to prevent damage to waterways and farms as muskrats can be considered pests. 

It appears there was a drafting error in the bill that eventually became the Northwest Territories Territorial Lands Act regarding muskrat farming, and the intention was to prohibit the sale of Territorial land for the purpose of Muskrat Farming.

When I set out to find out why the strange section of muskrat farming existed, I was hoping to uncover a long lost tale of an eccentric furrier lobbying the government in hopes of striking it rich from “Hudson Seal.” A historical drafting error is a bit of an anticlimactic end to this muskrat mystery.


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