RJ Simpson and Caroline Wawzonek in September 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
After securing their seats at the 20th Legislative Assembly, returning members turn to a fresh question: who will lead the Northwest Territories next?
After a difficult 19th Legislative Assembly – plagued first by Covid-19, then by floods and fires – re-elected MLAs who’ve already served as ministers say they have valuable experience leading the territory through hardship.
Since 2011, the NWT’s premier has come from a Yellowknife district, sanding down an unofficial agreement to rotate the position between leaders from different communities. Some call that an obsolete tradition, while others consider it another example of the bad hand smaller communities are dealt.
RJ Simpson wants the new group of MLAs to look beyond Yellowknife and select him to lead the territory.
Simpson was a regular MLA from 2015 to 2019, then became the education and justice minister in Caroline Cochrane’s government. While his father, Rocky, lost his seat on Tuesday, RJ was easily re-elected to a third term.
“I’ve been saying that to my constituents on the campaign trail the entire time,” Simpson told Cabin Radio when asked if he planned to run for premier, “and I’m receiving a lot of support, because I think they also see there’s things that need to change.”
He added: “The way to make those changes is through the premiership. So that’s why I want to do it.”
Caroline Wawzonek, the Yellowknife South MLA after being acclaimed when nobody ran against her, was the finance and industry minister for most of the past four years.
While she is considered a contender for the role of premier, Wawzonek has chosen her words carefully when discussing who should lead the territory and where that person should come from.
“The conventions of the assembly are the conventions of the assembly,” Wawzonek said. “Its traditions are held by all 19 members. And if the 19 members want to change the traditions, it’s up to the 19 members to change the traditions – but we should be doing that as a group.
“I’m not going to come out and say that should be changed, could be changed, or would be changed, any more than they have a tradition of having two members from the north, two members from Yellowknife and two members from the south,” she added, referring to a convention that sets out how cabinet should be geographically balanced.
Shane Thompson, the environment and communities minister whose roles were central to the flood and fire crises of recent years, has won his Nahendeh seat for the third time.
As one of the few seasoned members re-elected to the 20th Assembly, Thompson said some people had asked whether he would consider becoming the premier.
“People have asked me if I would do it. I’ve had the honour of having that conversation, but I have to reach out to a number of people and have conversations tomorrow and the next day,” Thompson told Cabin Radio on Tuesday night.
“It’s an honour just having your name brought forward to that position and it’s a lot of hard work. I’ve seen what Premier Cochrane went through from cabinet.”
“She worked really hard and it’s a thankless job,” Thompson continued, concluding that ultimately, he had to decide “what’s best for the region and what’s best for the Territories moving forward.”
There’s nothing to stop any MLA putting their hat in the ring. Four years ago, having only served as a regular MLA at the time, Simpson bid to become premier in a four-way contest against then-newcomer Frieda Martselos, veteran Jackson Lafferty and eventual winner Caroline Cochrane, who had served one term as a minister.
The 19 MLAs chosen this week will now convene for what is known as the Territorial Leadership Committee, where they’re expected to vote in secret for a new premier on November 30.
A new cabinet is set to be similarly chosen in secret a week later.