Originally, the Northwest Territories stretched over the greater part of western and northern Canada. They were purchased in 1870 from the Hudson's Bay Company, which had established numerous trading posts in addition to taking over those of its rival, the North West Company. Large parts of the Territories were successively carved off to create Manitoba in 1870, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1880, and the Yukon in 1898, and to expand Ontario and Quebec in 1912. In 1999, the largest part of the Northwest Territories separated to become the new territory of Nunavut.

The story of these changes is imbued with the presence of French. From the 17th century and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Francophones were active in exploring the territory and later in creating the routes of the lucrative fur trade. Many were to be found in trading posts as guides, traders, clerks and interpreters, but many were also to be counted among the managers of posts operated by the North West Company. These trading posts constituted so many pockets of populations that have been described as transient, but which in reality brought together Whites and Aboriginals, often for fairly long periods. This promoted the development of permanent Métis settlements, which often attracted missions, with the Catholic Church playing a leading role.

The Hudson's Bay Company was a dominant feature in the life of the Northwest Territories up until Confederation. Canada's desire to expand to the west changed the socio-political landscape of the region. Dominated by Anglo-Saxon values and British culture, the waves of immigration to the Prairies, which accelerated in the 1880s, exacerbated the disputes between Métis and Whites, and led to a series of confrontations between Francophones and Anglophones. In 1892, the Northwest Territories passed a law making English the sole official language. In 1901, English education was made compulsory. Not until 1984 would the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly re-establish French as one of the Territories' official languages.

The trading posts survived until after the Second World War, when the fur trade went into decline. Mining became the chief engine of development, reaching a peak in the 1970s. The transfer of administrative responsibilities from Ottawa to Yellowknife in 1967 also contributed to the growth of a majority Anglophone non-native population in the region. The 1950s were significant: the Arctic was chosen as the location for an early warning system against possible Soviet attacks. This network drew thousands of workers to the North from all over, intensifying what was already a serious linguistic imbalance at the end of the 19th century.

Support associations played a leading role in Franco‑tenois vitality. The Association culturelle franco-ténoise, which became the Fédération franco-ténoise, was established in 1978. In 1986, together with other organizations that work to champion French interests in the Northwest Territories, they founded L'Aquilon, a weekly newspaper that covers Franco-tenois current affairs and considers itself a medium for social, cultural and political news and information. The following years saw a proliferation of organizations that strove to encourage community development. Their efforts could be seen in Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, Tuktuyaktuk, Yellowknife, Nanisivik, Resolute and Iqaluit. Few survived the mine closures, the transfer of military bases, the departure of leaders, etc. Since the division of the Northwest Territories with the birth of Nunavut on April 1, 1999, the Fédération francoténoise has had seven regular and six associate members. Today, 90% of the Franco‑tenois population is spread among four communities-Fort Smith, Inuvik, Hay River and Yellowknife.