Explore the beauty of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories

The town of Fort Smith is in the South Slave Region of Canada's Northwest Territories (NWT). Its Chipewyan name means "beside the rapids." Fort Smith is in the southeast of the NWT, on the Slave River, right next to the border with Alberta, on the 60th line north.

The Slave River is where Fort Smith was built. A lot of people used it to get from southern Canada to the western Arctic by sea. Early fur traders found a portage route from Fort Fitzgerald on the western shore of the Slave River to Fort Smith. 

Native people had used this route for a long time. This path got people around the four sets of rapids that couldn't be crossed: Cassette Rapids, Pelican Rapids, Mountain Rapids, and Rapids of the Drowned. Generations of Indigenous people in the area had used the crossing trail for hundreds of years.

The Native people who lived in the area changed over time as the fortunes of the tribes did. Slavey had moved north by 1870, and the Cree lived in the Slave River Valley. The Chipewyan had also started to move into the area.

Peter Pond of the North West Company was the first white trader who was known to have travelled on the Slave River and met Native Americans in this area. He built Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca in the 1780s. It was at the head of the Slave River.

In the 1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company led the fur trade into the Mackenzie River area. York boats ran the Slave River's rapids, and small portages were built to get around the most dangerous spots when needed. 

No matter what, bad things were going to happen. People called this part of the Slave River "The Rapids of the Drowned."

In 1872, the Hudson's Bay Company built a station at the most southern set of the Slave River rapids. It was called Smith's Landing (now Fort Fitzgerald). Another station was built at the most northern set of rapids in 1874. 

It was named Fort Smith. Donald Alexander Smith was made a peer of the United Kingdom in August 1897 and given the titles of 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal. Both positions were named in his honour.

While things were going well in Fort Smith in 1876, the Roman Catholic Mission was moved there from Salt River.

It was built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1886 to run from Fort Smith to the Mackenzie River. It was called the SS Wrigley. 

Starting in 1882, the SS Grahame ran the Slave River from Fort McMurray to Smith's Landing, which is at the head of the rapids. 

For the Yukon Gold Rush in 1898, a lot of people crossed the portages and went through Fort Smith. The SS Mackenzie River, a new HBC steamer paddle wheeler, was launched in 1908 to work on the Slave and Mackenzie rivers below Fort Smith .

In 1911, Ottawa sent an Indian agent and a regional doctor to Fort Smith to set up government. At the same time, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police set up a station. 

Because of these changes, Fort Smith not only became the hub for traffic in the western Arctic, but it also became the seat of government.

The mission sawmill made the wood for St. Anne's Hospital, which was built in 1914 for the Grey Nuns and was the first hospital. The sawmill also gave the wood for the 1915 building of the first school. 

The Roman Catholic Mission also ran St. Bruno's Farm, which sold meat, cheese, and vegetables. All of the church's missions in the western Arctic got their food from the farm until it shut down in the 1920s. It had workers who took care of a herd of more than 140 horses.

Tractors were added to horse-drawn freight services in 1919, when the Alberta & Arctic Transportation Company, a branch of the Lamson & Hubbard Trading Company, hired two 75-horsepower (56 kW) tractors to move commercial freight from one side of the rapids to the other on the Slave River portage.

Oil was found at Norman Wells in 1920. The federal government built an administration building to house the new Northwest Territories office and the first court of justice in the Mackenzie District. 

In June 1921, the Union Bank of Canada opened the first bank in the Northwest Territories in Fort Smith. It was in a tent.

It was made by Lamson & Hubbard Trade Company in 1920 to serve its trade posts along the Mackenzie River. 

The HBC took over this group in 1924. Since the 1930s, building ships and barges have been a big part of Fort Smith's business. 

Wood Buffalo National Park was created in 1922, and its main office for running the park and managing it was in Fort Smith.

The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals put in the first Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System station in Fort Smith in 1924. Fort Smith Airport was built in 1928.

It was 1938 when gold was found in Yellowknife. This was good news for Fort Smith's economy because many prospectors stopped by and bought supplies. 

There was also the building of an Anglican Mission house that same year. In 1939, a church was built.

When the Second World War broke out in 1942 and 1943, huge troops fought all over the world. Fort Smith did its small part to help win the war. 

Fort Smith, which only had 250 people living there, was home to 2,000 US Army forces on their way to the Canol Oil Pipeline Project at Norman Wells and the Canol Road. 

They brought a lot of goods on boats, so they built a tractor road from Fort Smith to Hay River and even farther north to move these.

Gold fever continued to feed Yellowknife's growth, and it also helped Fort Smith's population grow five times in the ten years after 1945. 

More government offices were built to keep up with the growing population, and the village became a traffic hub for the Mackenzie District.

In 1964, Fort Smith was made into a village. On October 1, 1966, with a population of 2,130, the village became a town. The all-weather road to Hay River was finished in 1966, connecting Fort Smith to the south for good.

When a southern rail link to Hay River was finished in 1964, Fort Smith's role as a shipping hub was mostly taken away. In 1968, the last ship to sail on the Slave River.

In 1967, Yellowknife was named the territorial capital. However, Fort Smith remained as the administrative heart of the government for the Northwest Territories' huge area. See the history of the main cities of the Northwest Territories.

On Friday, August 9, 1968, a landslide about 1,010 by 300 m (3,300 by 990 ft) broke off from the riverbank and hit Fort Smith. 

It killed one person and damaged property. Since then, the area along the river has been raised to make it more stable. It was reshaped into a gentle slope and is now called Riverbank Park. It has well-kept trails, picnic places, and a platform where you can see the Rapids of the Drowned.

The Adult Vocational Training Centre opened in 1970. Later, it grew, and in 1981, it changed its name to Thebacha College. 

A few years after that, the Northwest Territories government set up Arctic College. There were government buildings on the Thebacha Campus. 

The college changed its name to Aurora College in 1995 so that Nunavut could use the name Arctic College for their own college.

Fort Smith now has three types of governments: federal, territorial, and aboriginal. Education, tourists, and these governments all bring in money. 

In 2008, people started to want to reopen a portage path so that the Fort McMurray oilsands operations could get supplies by river.

Geography of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories

Yellowknife, the centre of the territory, is about 300 km (190 mi) southeast of the town. Fort Smith is home to the park offices for Wood Buffalo National Park. 

Fort Smith is home to Aurora College's main office and the Thebacha Campus. It is the biggest of the three campuses in the Northwest Territories. 

Fort Smith is in both the South Slave Region (for government purposes) and Region 5 of the Northwest Territories (for census purposes). The town used to be part of the Fort Smith Region census region.

The Fort Smith Highway makes Fort Smith easy to get to all year. During the winter, there is a road that runs from Fort Smith to Fort Chipewyan and then to Fort McMurray. Pine Lake Road, an all-weather road, connects Fitzgerald.


Fort Smith has a dry continental subarctic climate, which means that the winters are very long and the summers are warm but not very long.

Fort Smith's hottest day ever was June 30, 2021, when it was 39.9 °C (103.8 °F). That day, December 26, 1917, it was −57.2 °C (−71.0 °F) coldest ever measured. It is now both the hottest and coldest it has ever been in the Northwest Territories.


Statistics Canada's 2021 Census of Population found that 2,248 people lived in 881 of Fort Smith's 1,009 private homes. 

This is 11.6% less than the 2,542 people who lived there in 2016. It was 91.21 km2 (35.22 sq mi) and had 24.6 people per km2 (63.8 people per sq mi) of land space in 2021. 

The 2016 census found that 1,645 people in Fort Smith were Indigenous. Of these, 920 were First Nations, 585 were Métis, and 135 were Inuit. 

They speak English, Chipewyan (Dene), Cree, Dogrib, Slavey-Hare, Inuinnaqtun (Inuvialuktun), and Inuktitut as their main languages.

The Government

The Town of Fort Smith Council is the local government. It has 9 members: 7 councilors, 1 deputy mayor, and the mayor. 

The council is chosen every three years, and the mayor only works part-time. Fred Daniels is the mayor of Fort Smith as of 2021. The Salt River First Nation #195 speaks for Fort Smith.

They are part of the Akaitcho Territory Government and live there. By June 2012, the Salt River First Nation had given the Akaitcho Territory Government the required six months' notice that they were leaving the group. 

Members of the Northwest Territories Métis Nation have a voice in the area through the Fort Smith Métis Council. 

In 1996, a framework deal was signed between the government of Canada and the government of the Northwest Territories, allowing talks to begin about land, resources, and self-government.


Fort Smith has a number of schools, such as the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College, Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School, and Paul William Kaeser High School. The town is also home to the major office of the South Slave Divisional Education Council.

Tourist Attractions

Fort Smith, located in the Northwest Territories of Canada, offers a unique blend of natural beauty and cultural attractions for tourists. Here are some of the key tourist attractions in Fort Smith:

Wood Buffalo National Park: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest national parks in the world, spanning over 44,800 square kilometers. It's home to the last remaining herds of free-roaming wood bison, as well as diverse ecosystems, including boreal forests, wetlands, and rivers.

Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society Observatory: For stargazing enthusiasts, this observatory provides an excellent opportunity to observe the night sky in the pristine wilderness of the Northwest Territories. Visitors can attend guided stargazing sessions and learn about the wonders of the universe.

Slave River: The Slave River offers opportunities for outdoor adventures such as kayaking, canoeing, and rafting. Its powerful rapids attract adrenaline junkies from around the world, while its scenic beauty provides a serene backdrop for leisurely boat tours.

Pine Lake: A popular spot for fishing and camping, Pine Lake is surrounded by picturesque forests and offers tranquil settings for relaxation and outdoor recreation. Visitors can enjoy boating, swimming, and wildlife viewing in this pristine natural environment.

Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre: This museum showcases the history and culture of the region, including exhibits on Indigenous heritage, fur trading, and the natural environment of the Northwest Territories. It offers insight into the traditional way of life in the North and celebrates the area's rich cultural diversity.

Salt River Day Use Area: A scenic picnic spot located along the Salt River, this area is perfect for a leisurely afternoon surrounded by nature. Visitors can enjoy hiking trails, wildlife viewing, and birdwatching while taking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.

Fort Smith Historic Site: Explore the remnants of the original Fort Smith, which played a significant role in the fur trade era and the development of the Northwest Territories. Interpretive panels provide insight into the history of the area and its importance as a trading post.

Pelican Rapids Golf & Country Club: Golf enthusiasts can tee off amidst stunning northern landscapes at this golf course located just outside of Fort Smith. With nine holes nestled along the shores of the Slave River, it offers a unique golfing experience in a pristine wilderness setting.

During the summer, pelicans build their nests on the rocks near Fort Smith. The area is also home to rare whooping cranes in the summer, but you can only see them from the air because you can't get there on foot.

These attractions offer a glimpse into the natural beauty, cultural heritage, and outdoor adventure opportunities that Fort Smith and the surrounding area have to offer. Whether you're interested in exploring the wilderness, learning about local history, or simply enjoying the tranquility of the northern landscape, Fort Smith has something to offer for every type of traveler.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Fort Smith, Northwest Territories:

Q1. What is the significance of Fort Smith's location?

Fort Smith is strategically located in the South Slave Region of the Northwest Territories, situated beside the rapids of the Slave River. This location historically facilitated trade and transportation between southern Canada and the western Arctic.

Q2. What are some notable historical landmarks in Fort Smith?

Fort Smith boasts several historical landmarks, including the original Fort Smith historic site, the Roman Catholic Mission, and the Salt River First Nation #195. These sites offer insights into the region's fur trading era and Indigenous heritage.

Q3. What outdoor activities are available in Fort Smith?

Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy a variety of activities in Fort Smith, such as kayaking, canoeing, and rafting on the Slave River, fishing and camping at Pine Lake, and exploring the extensive trails for hiking and wildlife viewing.

Q4. What cultural attractions are worth visiting in Fort Smith?

Visitors can explore the Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre to learn about the history and culture of the region, attend stargazing sessions at the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society Observatory, and experience traditional Indigenous lifestyles.

Q5. Is there accommodation available for tourists in Fort Smith?

Fort Smith offers a range of accommodation options, including hotels, lodges, and campgrounds, catering to different preferences and budgets. Visitors can choose from various lodging facilities to suit their needs during their stay.

Q6. How can tourists access Fort Smith?

Fort Smith is accessible by road via the Fort Smith Highway, which remains open year-round. Additionally, there are air travel options through the Fort Smith Airport, providing convenient access for tourists from different parts of Canada and beyond.

Q7. What are some unique natural attractions near Fort Smith?

Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-visit attraction near Fort Smith, offering pristine wilderness, diverse ecosystems, and the opportunity to spot wildlife such as wood bison and whooping cranes.

Q8. Are there any special events or festivals held in Fort Smith?

Throughout the year, Fort Smith hosts various events and festivals celebrating its culture, heritage, and natural surroundings. These events may include cultural festivals, outdoor recreation events, and community gatherings, providing entertainment for locals and visitors alike.


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