What NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane learned from the pandemic
The NWT’s premier says creating a secretariat shouldn’t be necessary if the territory ever faces a pandemic again.
Caroline Cochrane was responding to a new GNWT report that sets out 23 recommendations after an analysis of the territorial government’s pandemic response.
The report recommends re-examining the legislation used by the NWT in emergencies “to ensure that there is the appropriate level of public accountability for decisions that are made during a pandemic,” and queries whether a state of emergency should be able to last indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the NWT’s chief public health officer says the GNWT needs a different structure for the next pandemic – and must do a better job of helping vulnerable people.
Below, read our full interview with Premier Caroline Cochrane. You can also read our interview with Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola and our full report on the GNWT’s recommendations for change.
This interview was recorded on April 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What are the most important lessons you learned about doing your job during a pandemic, and that you would do differently next time?
Premier Caroline Cochrane: The pandemic was new to all of us and there wasn’t a game plan on how to address a pandemic. So we were learning on the fly. There were a lot of long nights, there were many meetings with the CPHO, many meetings with departments, ministers, community and Indigenous governments and the public.
The biggest thing that the report really reinforced is that a pandemic isn’t the territory’s responsibility alone. It can’t be, we don’t have the capacity to deal with it all. So it’s important that we work together and that we improve our communications, and honesty, and our emergency plans to make sure that in the case that another pandemic would hit the NWT, all communities, all of us as residents, would be better prepared to be able to address the pandemic.
Your focus in that response sounds like it’s the relationship between different levels of government in the NWT and how that can be improved. Is that what you’re getting at?
Because I’ve been in the social sector for so long, I take the need for evaluations to heart. I understand the importance of evaluating anything we do. Like I said, the pandemic was something new. None of us had a game plan for it, we didn’t know what we were dealing with. We were acting on the fly with the best information we had at the time. Right after we lifted the emergency measures, we needed to evaluate what we did.
We need to make sure that if it ever happens again, the GNWT is better-prepared internally and that the supports we provide to communities are adequate – and if not, how we can better those. That was the purpose of the review, to make sure we evaluated what happened and in the case of another pandemic, that the government wouldn’t be left on the hook, that they would have something they could go back on and say, “OK, these are the lessons learned. This is what happened, this is what they did, and this is what we need to do better.”
And were community supports adequate, or are there ways you could better them?
There’s always better we could do. We had regular meetings with the Indigenous governments, community governments. Minister Thompson was meeting with community governments. I was meeting with indigenous governments on a weekly basis through the heights of Covid. So I think we were trying to address the needs that came up on a weekly basis as best as possible, but it was important for me to reflect back. Every government, every individual that was living through the pandemic was doing the best they could. But often, when you look back after you do things, there’s new insight that comes in, so I was looking for that.
If this happened again, would you create a secretariat again, or would you choose a different way to coordinate the GNWT response?
The secretariat, when we first formed it, was necessary because everybody had full job descriptions and we didn’t have the capacity. We needed to have people focused directly on the pandemic. The report advised, and it’s something we recognize in the GNWT as well, that we shouldn’t have to do that if it happens again. We should have the capacity, internally, to be able to – whether it’s a critical response team or whatever it may be called, it just steps up, so that we wouldn’t have to have a specific secretariat. And we wouldn’t be scrambling to find people to fill those positions and then making sure that we had the services that departments usually provide at the same time.
Do you feel as though the GNWT is in a position now where, should this happen again, it won’t need to reach for the secretariat button?
Let’s hope, first, that we never have another pandemic, because I think that was really stressful on all of us. If it happened again? At the moment we’re looking at emergency plans with all the communities, we’re already looking at some of the work we’re doing. So I can’t say, it would depend on what the pandemic was, what the situation was. But if we implement the recommendations that we’ve received, then there should be no necessity to set up a secretariat. However, in saying that, we would still need a crisis response. We would still need to set something up so that people would be able to devote their time specifically to addressing the pandemic.
In the lessons learned report, most people responding to its authors believed the chief public health officer had too much authority over the GNWT, and over NWT residents. for too long. Looking back, how would you change that?
I do know that that’s the perception. I think that there are a number of factors. Our Public Health Act, at this point, does identify that when there’s a public health concern, the CPHO does have the authority to oversee it. But at the same time, Dr Kandola – who I have a lot of respect for – actually was our spokesperson. She’s the expert in the field. No politician is an expert in the health field that I know of. I mean, there may be people that come from that background, but we specifically have her as the expert in that field. But at the same time, although she was the person that was on the front page, myself, Minister Green, and other ministers were with her. There were many things going on in the departments.
She would give the direction, for example, saying: “We need to set up checkpoints at the border.” But she didn’t say “this is how you’re going to do it.” It was our responsibility, as ministers and departments, to actually do that. So I think it’s important to know that, although Dr Kandola was the public figure, although she was the authority in public health, many, many, many workers throughout the GNWT were working diligently to make sure that we were as prepared as possible for the pandemic.
You’re happy with how that worked?
We’re at the end of this Legislative Assembly. My recommendation would be that the next assembly pick up this report. Like I said, we’re already working on things such as the emergency measure plans within communities, but the legislation change? I think it does need to be looked at. Should the CPHO have sole authority for something that goes on for two years? Those are questions that I think need to be answered.
I do think that the legislation needs to be looked at by the next government but, in saying that, legislation takes time. We don’t have enough time in this government to do a comprehensive review of it. It would mean going out to the public again and hearing the concerns again, because although I have this report, although I worked through the pandemic, although I heard concerns from community governments, Indigenous governments, MLAs, the general public, I always believe that the more feedback, the better. So I think the legislation does need to be looked at, but I think it needs to have the time necessary to make sure that we get it right.
There will be people who hear that and feel like you’re asking for a report on a report and that this is sometimes one of the problems with the GNWT – that only elongates the timeline to actually get things fixed. Is that a fair criticism?
I’m one of the people that say “reports on reports on reports, when do we get the action done?” However, in saying that, I do believe that legislation is critical. This is the laws. This isn’t something that should be taken lightly. It’s not like a program that can be changed overnight. It’s something that is defined, it often takes years and years to replace or to change because of so much legislation we have. So I think, in this case, that it needs to be done right. The time needs to be done. And if they decide not to go on the road with it, that is the choice of that government. But the reality is, in this case, I do think that there would have to be serious community engagement, just making sure that we’re on track.
The NWT government spent about a week trying to block access to the chief public health officer to even talk about this report with us. Why was that? What were the dangers of having the chief public health officer speak to journalists about this?
That’s news to me. I’m actually really shocked that you’ve said that. I would hope that that wasn’t true. So I know nothing about that. But I am going to look into that because the CPHO should be. Any employee at the GNWT should be able to – within their authority – be able to talk to the media. I can’t comment on that at this point, because it’s first I’ve heard of it.
8-1-1 was a frustrating experience for a lot of people. Some of that’s in the report: the advice was inconsistent, you could call it twice and be told two totally different things. Do you think 8-1-1 was fit for purpose or that it failed, really, to live up to what it needed to do?
That’s a double-edged sword. 8-1-1 was a necessity. We recognized through Covid that our communications needed to be increased. It was an attempt to make sure that we were trying to communicate with people, that we could actually get timely responses back. The CPHO and every department was getting hundreds of emails every day, phone calls off the hook, so it was a method of trying to address communications in a timely manner. Could it be improved? Absolutely. Now that 8-1-1 is a standard feature of the GNWT, I think as with every program, the longer it serves, the more attuned we get to making sure that the programs address the needs of the residents.
Would you have done anything differently from a political perspective – political messaging, political decision-making, how you, as premier, presented your government’s approach to the public?
I do agree with the public. I think that communications was the area that we could have increased on. It was difficult, though. We were meeting weekly with the CPHO, as much as possible with the media, with Indigenous governments, community governments, and still trying to meet our mandate. So it was a matter of trying to find enough time. If I was to do it again – which I, again, hope I never have to do again – I think that in fairness to the public, it would have been… I hate to say this, because I don’t know where I would find the time, but I think that just having more media availability might have been something that I might change.
Through all of this, hundreds and hundreds of people worked incredibly hard through the pandemic to try to make things as good as they could be. What for you stand out as the successes?
The biggest success was reconfirmation of my faith in society. When Covid-19 first hit, myself included, I think a lot of people were looking at: is this the end of the world? What does this mean for us? Do I run away and live in the bush? I had those thoughts as the premier.
I realized, as soon as those thoughts were there, that I had a responsibility to lead the people and so I stood up, but that responsibility was not defined for other positions. And I think the most successful thing was seeing the amount of people, both in the government and without, that put their own life at risk, not knowing if we would live or die, but were willing to sacrifice their own lives to help their neighbours, their friends, their loved ones. That was incredible. It gave me faith again in the human spirit. It gave me faith that society isn’t off track, that we still care about each other. And if there’s one thing I’ll remember from the pandemic, it’s the sacrifices that lots of individuals made to help those around them.