Q&A: Premier Caroline Cochrane enters an election year
About nine months remain for the current Northwest Territories government, with an election set to take place this fall.
Caroline Cochrane, the NWT’s premier since 2019 and a cabinet member since 2015, says she’s not yet sure what that election holds for her – and whether she’ll run again.
If she does, there’s no guarantee she will return to the premiership. The territory’s leader is chosen by MLAs after an election, and voters have no say in who that 19-person group will select even if Cochrane is re-elected as the MLA for Yellowknife’s Range Lake.
Predecessor Bob McLeod, who served for eight years as premier, was an outlier. The 10 premiers before McLeod served for four years or fewer.
“Covid, I think, has changed a lot of our priorities. I’m more focused on the work that I have to do now and making sure that my life is fulfilled, and I do the best I can right now, because I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Cochrane said last week.
In an interview looking ahead to the last calendar year of the present government, Cochrane stressed the importance of upcoming legislation related to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – but acknowledged that her government may not hit its target of concluding two land claims by the time an election comes around.
Cochrane played down recent, vocal criticism from the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. “We will work toward making sure that those relationships are repaired and strengthened as we move forward,” she said.
Meanwhile, the premier said all territorial departments were doing their best to find solutions to cope with crises on multiple fronts, ranging from inflation and a labour shortage to a crisis of mental health that is territory-wide.
She was also asked what Alberta’s new leadership means for the territory, and how her priorities compare with those of the province’s new premier, Danielle Smith.
Read our full interview below.
This interview was recorded on January 11, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What’s keeping you busy this week?
Premier Caroline Cochrane: This week’s been a really busy week, actually. I just came back from a bilateral meeting with the Kátł’odeeche First Nation in Hay River yesterday. I’m working on reviewing our Covid-19 response, and I’m working on our United Nations declaration. Hopefully that legislation will come through in the next sitting.
What will that Undrip legislation actually do? What will that look like in practice?
The biggest thing is to recognize the rights of Indigenous people, Indigenous governments. More work will need to be done in the next government and I don’t want to release too much, because it’s going to come out here in the next couple of months, but really it’ll set the course for how we work with Indigenous governments and define the need to make sure that we work closely with Indigenous governments as we go forward. If we believe in self-government then this is the way of the future. So it’s exciting,
How significant a change should we expect?
I don’t think there should be a significant change. I think we’ve always had a duty, an obligation to work with Indigenous governments. We have an obligation to consult in a lot of areas. What you will see change is probably the development of legislation, the development of programs. Instead of it just being top-down, the Government of the Northwest Territories defining how it shall be for people, it will be all of us, all governments getting together – including, in some places, probably the federal government – sitting together and defining how our future will be together. That is the right way.
You promised land claims would be a priority of your government. For many years, premiers have said that but land claims have not meaningfully advanced. Do you feel like you have achieved what you set out to achieve?
We’re definitely not going to settle all the land claims in this government. We’re hoping to get very close to a couple and we’re really hoping to get them through but, if not in this government, then I am projecting really early in the next government that will be done. But I want to clarify. I know there’s a real push to see these land claims, these self-government agreements done. It’s important to recognize that this is defining the future for Indigenous people, Indigenous governments, so it can’t be pushed according to our agenda. It has to be an agenda that works with Indigenous governments as well. We’re close. I want to see as many as possible, but I’m also respectful that this defines their future and they have to be part of the timeline.
The implication of that answer is that more would have been done, but it is the Indigenous governments and communities that need more time.
Absolutely not. I don’t think so at all. I think all of us have a part to play – the federal government, the territorial government, Indigenous governments. My job as the territorial government is to make sure that the interests of the public government – or the public, all people, our residents – are maintained. The federal government has its own priorities and Indigenous governments need to be comfortable in what they’re doing. So it’s all of the parties. However, in saying that, it is self-government for Indigenous governments so I’m very respectful of their place at that table.
The mandate suggests there would be two land claims completed by the end of this government. You’re suggesting you expect that will come early in the next?
I’m hopeful for this government. Like I said, we’re very close. But I’m also conscious that these negotiations are very tender and sometimes one word will bring the lawyers back to the table. I’m hopeful. I would love to see it, it would be something I would be very proud of. It’s not even pride, it’s about believing it’s the right way to go.
You’re reviewing the territorial government’s response to Covid-19. The pandemic, I’m sure, has delayed progress on a lot of files. Where do you think the territory is feeling that the most? What will your government not get to before the election that you really wish it had?
We’re trying to get to as many of the mandates as possible. There was a lot of time and attention focused on Covid: our top priority of the government has to be on the safety of people. I’m proud of the work we did with Covid and I’m proud that even through Covid, we still were able to move forward on a lot of our mandates. So I’m hopeful that we’ll see, if not all of them, the majority of them. We’ve got a lot of work to do in this last year.
What are you learning as part of your review of the Covid-19 response?
I had my own experience going through Covid as an individual, as a politician, as a premier. I just got that document on my desk this morning. The whole review was talking to stakeholders, businesses, community governments, Indigenous governments, as many people as possible to see how it affected them. I haven’t gotten through the whole report yet. I haven’t gotten to the recommendations so I don’t think it’d be fair for me to speak on them until I’ve read that work and shared it with the MLAs.
We’re entering a year where there are crises on a significant number of fronts, both nationally and in the Northwest Territories. There is certainly a crisis of healthcare staffing. There is certainly a crisis of staffing in general. There is a crisis of mental health in the Northwest Territories. There are issues in childcare provision, there are issues virtually everywhere you turn. Yellowknife doesn’t even have enough school buses these days. What can you do as the premier, as the territorial government? There are a lot of fires to fight. Where do you focus your efforts in this final nine or 10 months, in terms of trying to do something about that?
That’s why we have so many ministers in the Legislative Assembly, and MLAs. It’s impossible for one person to tackle all those issues. All of those issues are important. What we need to do is try to look at what’s happening and of course lobby the federal government for more funding. That is critical, we can’t do this alone, we have a small tax base. But also looking at our own programs and how we can best support people. That’s why we’re looking at our housing programs, that’s why we’re looking at our income support programs and our mental health supports. Each department is trying to do the best it can and to restructure its service provision to meet the needs and the realities of today’s workforce.
Looking at a couple of examples of relations between your government and Indigenous governments recently, we have the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation being appalled – to the extent of going to court – over a raid that took place at a cultural camp last year. We have the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation expressing extreme concern – taking out full-page ads – over the GNWT’s approach regarding federal legislation to do with child welfare. Is there a point where you think that relations are failing to some degree with some Indigenous governments, and that we’re taking steps backward here?
No, absolutely not. There will always be concerns that all governments have. There will always be different opinions that we all have. The important thing with every relationship is to continue to be at the table. That’s why we have the Council of Leaders table, we try to work on the things that we all agree on. In any relationship, when you have an issue that arises, you have to deal with it. You can’t just bury that and you don’t just sever the relationship because of that. Right now, there are concerns with government. We will work toward making sure that those relationships are repaired and strengthened as we move forward.
What success would you point to that demonstrates the Council of Leaders does the job that you say it can, in holding governments together?
There’s a lot that the Council of Leaders has done. Just the fact that they’re coming together as one, that we share the chair, there’s no one leader – it’s not the GNWT defining this, it’s all of us with one voice, one vote at each table. We got together as a group and we defined priorities that all of us wanted to see from the federal government. We brought Minister Vandal in and we spoke to him with one voice and said, “These are our priorities.”
I think the work that we’re doing with the United Nations declaration? I couldn’t imagine not doing this individually with governments but collectively, at the Council of Leaders, it’s incredible. The work that the Council of Leaders is doing with a review of the housing policies? Never in any government does that happen. I think that’s exciting. There’s a lot. And that’s only been in a short few years since we formed it. I’d love to be able to hear the answer to that question 10 years from now.
I’m sure you’ve started making notes for things that the Council of Leaders – and the territorial government – are going to have to take on past the election. What are the top things on that priority list?
The biggest thing is probably going to be work that has to be still conducted with the United Nations declaration. In this assembly, if all goes smoothly, we’ll have passed the act that brings the United Nations declaration into effect. But after that, there’s still going to have to be work on what that looks like in reality: how do our programs and legislation fit within that. And it probably will take at least 10 years, if not longer.
And what are your thoughts on your future?
Right now, I’m still young. I’m not sure. Honestly, I would have had long-term goals before Covid. Covid, I think, has changed a lot of our priorities. I’m more focused on the work that I have to do now and making sure that my life is fulfilled, and I do the best I can right now, because I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Are you planning to seek re-election in the fall?
Covid changed my perspective on a lot of things. What I plan and what happens might not be the same two things. Right now I have a lot of work to do in this government. I want to get done as much as possible to help residents of the NWT. I think we have about nine months left in this government. I’m really proud of the work that we did with getting women in leadership and the diversity at the table, but we need that diversity. So I’d like to the public to hear that. If you feel you have something to offer, if you can take a lot of work, if you can do the hard work, start planning now. Because now it’s the time to start planning for the campaign.
What does Alberta’s new leadership mean for the Northwest Territories?
I’ve talked to Premier Smith. I’ve been watching how she’s going as well. Every new leader has to go through things. Some people like you and some don’t like you, that’s politics. What I’ve really focused my attention on with Premier Smith is the services that we do utilize a lot: we’re pretty reliant on Alberta for a lot of things, for example healthcare. She’s given me her guarantee that things won’t change. Again, it’s about relationship-building. You know, I’m thinking about her Christmas card that she sent me saying that she had loved to meet me, it was a really good meeting, and she’s excited to work at the Council of the Federation on areas that we all agree on. That’s the key: we have to work on things that we all agree on.
What do you agree on with Danielle Smith?
I agree that we need additional funding for healthcare. Every premier agrees with that, for sure.