Premier Caroline Cochrane in her office in 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Premier Caroline Cochrane is stepping down. After two four-year terms – one as a minister, one as leader – she says she won’t seek re-election this fall.
Cochrane’s decision, made public in the legislature on Thursday, is in keeping with territorial tradition. Until Bob McLeod’s two terms from 2011 to 2019, no modern NWT leader had spent more than four years in the role.
The act of remaining premier for more than a term is a difficult one in consensus government, where a fresh set of MLAs chooses the premier in a secret ballot after each election, meaning there is no guarantee of retaining power even if you run again and win.
Cochrane, the MLA for the Yellowknife district of Range Lake and formerly the education minister, leaves office after four years dominated by what she called “one crisis after another” – the Covid-19 pandemic, floods and wildfires being the most prominent. Privately, senior NWT figures have referred to “four years of hell.”
The pandemic, which arrived one month after Cochrane published her government’s four-year vision, “did overshadow a lot of things that I was hoping to get done,” she told Cabin Radio.
“With Covid, with the fires, with the floods, when things got really tough – I was sometimes asking: Why me?”
But Cochrane says she brought a stubbornness and compassion that she believes helped her through the past four years, and she argues her government made significant achievements in building relations with Indigenous counterparts and helping the territory’s vulnerable people.
“The pandemic, the fires, all these situations really highlighted the discrepancy with marginalized populations. When I first ran for politics, that’s where my heart was – and it really reinforced it,” Cochrane said.
Had this summer’s wildfire crisis dragged on any longer, or the election not been pushed back by six weeks, Cochrane said she would have sought re-election rather than walk away.
“If people were still evacuated, if people were still scrambled all over, if [fires] were raging in communities where it was still out of control and the time came up, I couldn’t have – in consciousness – not put my name forward,” she said.
“Because people were allowed to come home, we’ve got most of the fires in hold, we’re in control of the ones around communities, it allowed me again to think about taking the break that I need.”
While not ruling out a return to politics in future, she said the next set of territorial politicians must limit the number of priorities they select – far further than her own or prior governments did – and then focus on them ruthlessly.
“Do I want to have world peace and have every single priority on the table and not be able to address any of them? Or do I want to have two or three or four priorities? I think they need to look at that and focus on the climate change realities – the adaptation and mitigation that’s necessary for them – and also just pick two or three topics and focus on those,” she said.
“You can’t have as many priorities and expect them all to be solved.”
However, given that the territorial government’s mandate for each four-year term is jointly set by all MLAs, that requires getting 19 people from all corners of the territory to agree on less than a handful of key targets – which could be an impossible task.
Asked which priorities she would pick from 2023 to 2027 alongside climate change, Cochrane chose homelessness, mental health and the economy, stressing a need for the territory to keep supporting its mining sector in the hope that critical minerals provide an economic lift.
And having repeatedly criticized the federal government in recent weeks for a failure to invest in the North, she characterized the territory itself as a set of vulnerable people in saying: “We need all Canadians to start speaking for the North. It’s easy to ignore marginalized populations. We see that everywhere in our own society, all over the place.”
“Only when people that have the strength speak for marginalized populations will there be change,” Cochrane said. “We need Canadians as a whole to stand up and say we need to take care of the North.”