Caroline Wawzonek heads unopposed into a second term saying she’ll wait to see who her colleagues are before deciding where the next premier should come from.
Residents and candidates in some smaller communities maintain that the premiership should be circulated between regions so Yellowknife does not dominate, yet the premier has been Yellowknife-based since 2011.
Wawzonek is seen by some as a front-runner for the job. Her first term, mostly spent as finance and industry minister, culminated in acclamation after nobody opposed her in Yellowknife South.
Caroline Cochrane, who will remain the premier until a new one is chosen, decided not to seek re-election.
Wawzonek believes the NWT can and should be pursuing multiple big projects – the likes of the Mackenzie Valley Highway and Taltson hydro expansion, or equivalents – to grow the territory’s transportation and energy corridors.
Running, unusually for an incumbent, on a platform of this being a time when it’s “hard to be positive,” Wawzonek says this is a “pivotal moment” for the NWT and huge potential can be unlocked.
She wants to help communities to work together, expand digital services, complete the introduction of universal childcare and “secure our energy future” while improving housing.
Here’s our interview with Wawzonek ahead of her second term.
This interview was recorded on October 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Remind people of your background outside politics for anyone who doesn’t already know.
Caroline Wawzonek: That was only four years ago, although it feels an awful lot longer. I am a lawyer by training. I practised mainly criminal defence for many years and then went into more general practice doing a mix of business law and public administrative law, and outside the political world was quite active in the community. I was on a variety of different boards, quite involved in the Law Society, the Bar Association, Yellowknife Montessori Society.
You’ve been an MLA and a minister for the past four years. You were sure very early this year that you were going to seek re-election – I remember asking you in February and you said yes. Why were you so sure, so early, that running again would be a thing?
I don’t know that I would have announced it that early but for you asking me when we were discussing the budget, to be honest. It is a difficult job and a challenging job, but I have really and truly enjoyed the role, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing what can be done and what can be changed – and figured I’d probably still have things I wanted to see happen. And that has proven true.
You have a full platform available online. It has things like diversifying the economy, the polytechnic university, universal childcare, expanding digital services… I find it very hard to find daylight between what the GNWT would say its objectives are, and what you say your objectives are. That makes sense: you were an integral part of setting the GNWT’s objectives. Is it fair to say that you stand, at this election, as a continuation of the government we’ve seen you be a part of for four years?
That is an interesting question. I certainly think there are a number of things I’ve been involved with that I would now like to see either implemented or advanced. I look back at my own platform from 2019 and there’s actually a fair bit of similarity between my own platform and this one, but it has evolved, in my view. There are things that have been achieved – there’s been progress made on some things, and there’s been arguably not enough progress made on others. Do I think it’s a continuation of the government, or do I think it’s a continuation of my own priorities, knowing what I now know about the government? I think it’s probably the latter.
You say there were some things you wish we’d seen more progress on. What are those things?
I put energy security probably at the top of that list. I’ve had the chance to be involved with the Taltson steering committee, I’m well aware of where the work is going there. We need to resolve the situation of energy in the North. Being on diesel is not a long-term solution for us, for a whole host of reasons. Obviously, it’s a fossil fuel, it’s not going to help the climate situation that we are in. It is also extremely expensive. It is being taxed by the federal government.
And yet here we sit with very few alternatives. So that work must get done and those solutions must be found. Again, Taltson right now is where we’ve been putting our efforts, but if that’s not going to get advanced in the next several years, we need to have something else ready to go.
Over the past few weeks, I have heard territorial politician after territorial politician say actually, it should be the Mackenzie Valley Highway. Let’s focus on that and let’s not worry so much about the others, Taltson included. Is that how you feel?
The Mackenzie Valley Highway, too. Transportation corridor, energy corridor. We need both. And I certainly know as well as anyone the challenges that we have of paying for major infrastructure in the Northwest Territories. I am concerned that when we set our priorities as a government that we ensure that there’s a priority around ensuring viability of transportation corridors, but we still must resolve the energy situation. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that we have to pick one or the other. I think we have to resolve the problems.
The Mackenzie Valley highway is actually quite a way down the path. They’ve made a lot of progress on it, it’s already ready to be moved ahead. I think they should continue to do what they’re doing there. And then there’s work to be done with the communities in the Sahtu, in particular.
Taltson is not at the same stage where it’s going to be shovel-ready at the same time. So, you could certainly see advancing some of the work that’s happening on the Mackenzie Valley highway to see some notable change there, while at the same time moving the Taltson project forward, making critical decisions around routing.
And on energy, you can be looking into alternatives, whether it’s figuring out a way of better managing the infrastructure we have so that you can have renewables that are on the grid – which, right now, the infrastructure doesn’t support that very easily – or whether you’re looking at small nuclear or micro-nuclear. There’s alternative technologies that are going to be coming online and I just think we need to be ready to say which of those we’d be in line to maximize the utility of.
The federal government did order the Northwest Territories to implement a carbon tax, but it was your tax, you implemented it. You weren’t very happy doing so, nor were many other MLAs. Is that a sign that our relationship with the federal government is not functioning? What do we need to do differently here?
No, I don’t think it’s a sign that it’s not functioning. I don’t think anyone across Canada was particularly happy with the way that that rolled out and quite a number of other governments and other provinces were not happy with how that rolled out. If the question is broadly, what do we do with the federal government? I mean, I probably could fill the next 15 minutes on some thoughts on that.
In 60 seconds.
Oh, well, in 60 seconds then… I have some ministers with whom I have a very good relationship and you’re able to say, “Look, you’ve got a program going that’s not working, here’s why it’s not working,” or, “We’re going to need to modify that.” We have certainly had examples where they’ve been able to work with our departments to create flexibility. So ITI, for instance, has often been able to work quite well with CanNor to get flexibility on their funding programs.
There’s other challenges that I do see at the same time, and Taltson is another example where everyone seems interested – the federal government seems very interested – and yet here we all sit, and who’s the chicken and who’s the egg? Who needs to move first? And what are we going to do to see this project get advanced and who has to be involved?
Sometimes it’s a matter of, I think, having the right conversation with the right level of government within the federal government to ensure that we actually are advancing these initiatives at the same time and at the right time. Regulatory processes is another one – complete devolution and let’s actually see what happens next with our regulatory scheme, which is still a dual scheme. So I think there’s a lot that we have to do with the federal government. They have a big role in the Northwest Territories and I’d like them to sometimes recognize the role that they have.
When we spoke in 2019 you were talking about regulatory regimes, you were also talking about things like settled land claims being desperately overdue. Here we sit four years later, that barely moved. You tied that at the time directly to investor confidence from an economic perspective. Hard to say that investor confidence has particularly moved either. Where’s this going wrong? How is that fixed?
The role of negotiating land claims does sit outside of what I’m directly involved with. That said, I don’t know that I would change my view of it. The faster we can achieve a level of land certainty in the Northwest Territories, I think that will be to the benefit of us all. And I do think there’s been some movement within the Northwest Territories, and within the GNWT around some pretty critical relationship-building: the United Nations Declaration Act that was just passed in the last sitting, the implementation of the Intergovernmental Council’s legislative protocol for land and natural resources, which I did see under way through the Mineral Resources Act.
These are some pretty fundamental things that have happened that I think can start to change the relationship between us and Indigenous governments in the North, and hopefully make us more like allies as we sit down as opposed to three sides at a table. I wouldn’t change at all the fact that resolving land claims, all of the outstanding land claims, is going to be a huge change in the Northwest Territories.
Do you want to talk about investor confidence now, though?
Thirty seconds on investor confidence, where’s that going to come from any time soon? You might be the first incumbent I have ever seen run on a platform of “times are challenging right now and it can be hard to have hope.”
But I think I follow it with the fact that we have to have hope.
I mean, I’m a natural optimist, notwithstanding the last four years. There’s so much potential across the Northwest Territories and if anything, if I didn’t see it clearly before, I see it even more clearly now, even having gone through what we’ve gone through in four years, which has been difficult. I’ve had the chance to look into investor confidence and let’s look at the mineral resource industry, which is often where this comes up, in particular, to have the confidence to invest in exploration projects or advance projects to get them over the line.
When I’ve been meeting with the mineral resource companies, particularly the more junior companies, the tenor of the conversation from three years ago, when I became the ITI minister, to today, it has changed from one where there was – to be quite frank about it – a litany of complaints at all times to be one where there’s still problems and challenges that they may bring, but there is definitely a sense of interest and hope in what’s coming, whether it’s because of the interest in critical minerals, whether it’s saying, “Hey, at least you’re now talking the same talk as us about energy, around finding energy alternatives.” You know, being front-and-centre at some of the mineral resource conferences and actually being asked, “Hey, how are you doing your regulatory system?” We may wish it was better, but others are looking at us saying: “The way you’re doing it is where everyone needs to be.”
So the fact that we’ve been able to get that narrative out and say, “Yes, it might take you a little longer” – although I’m not even sure if that’s in fact true – is different. It’s different and it has value.
In 2019, you talked about finding common ground and collaboration. There are times in the legislature that that hasn’t happened over the past four years. How would you characterize what relationships have been like over the past four years, and how we improve those?
I’m going to speak to my relationships in the last four years. And I’ve had the challenge, but also the pleasure, of negotiating now eight different budgets, so the four operating budgets and the four capital budgets. And that process comes with a rollercoaster of emotions, but every single one of them have passed – every single one, I believe, have passed with changes made as a result of discussions had between all members of the assembly, so between myself and representatives on behalf of what we call AOC, or the regular members. And we’ve been able to modify budgets in a way that I think then reflected all of our collective priorities. So we managed to do that eight times through all the ups and downs, and end up I think with better results every time.
I want to touch on your district, Yellowknife South. I don’t want to overlook that – it’s essentially a slice of northern suburbia, south of Range Lake. Are there issues that you believe are specific to your constituents that maybe aren’t shared elsewhere in Yellowknife, or the NWT? What in particular are you hoping to do for Yellowknife South in four more years?
Although there certainly are demographic differences between different regions within Yellowknife, the similarities within Yellowknife are probably stronger than elsewhere, as compared to smaller communities. One thing with Yellowknife is when all of the Northwest Territories is prospering, Yellowknife is prospering. And if all of the Northwest Territories is struggling, then we are probably not doing as well as we could be either. There’s a lot of business owners and a lot of public servants in Yellowknife South, and those two demographics, for all of them, again, if the economy is doing well, that brings with it benefits.
Obviously, for the business owners, it brings with it benefits, but for everyone else too – your cost of living can start to be mitigated if things are going well, and basically, your productivity becomes higher. For Yellowknife South that’s not particularly profound, but at the same time, those are also not without their challenges – to say that you’re going to achieve greater prosperity.
When you entered government, you talked about real, measurable results, wanting to have those in government. First of all, do you believe that there are now real, measurable results? And secondly, how do you evaluate the results? Is this a government that has met the task?
Speaking to my own departments and to the work that I’ve been involved with: the government renewal initiative is one that was started in 2020. It was striking to me that we did not know all of the programs and services offered by the government. We do now have a full inventory of all of the government programs and services that are offered, and we’re entering into a phase where… here’s another thing that I didn’t know we didn’t have, which was an actual review, a program review policy to actually go through the process of reviewing some of our programs and evaluating them. Seems like some pretty fundamental things. They weren’t there four years ago, and they are there now.
Even some of the boards that we have to appoint people to didn’t necessarily have matrices to identify the skill sets required. I’ve certainly seen, in some of the boards that I’m involved with, that that is now put in place. So small examples, but up to the big examples, and those to me are actually very fundamental process-driven things that will actually allow us to now better do the things that government is expected to do.
And how are the results?
The things that I have been involved with, I have seen change, and I have seen, I think, very positive change. I’ll take a different example now and look at the human resources component. It’s one where a lot of concerns get raised and concerns get raised on the floor of the House. Four years ago, there wasn’t even a strategic plan for government human resources. There wasn’t the Indigenous recruitment or retention framework, despite the fact that we’ve been sitting at 30 percent in a territory that’s 50-percent representation by Indigenous peoples. So we now have all these, I think, quite fundamental things.
Even the remote work policy – it was responsive at the time to what was happening with Covid, but it’s an incredible tool that we can better use. So we have had foundational change, in my view, on some pretty major areas. I do think there’s still work to be done to actually see it further implemented and to see it really bear fruit.
Tradition dictates that the next premier comes from somewhere other than Yellowknife. MLAs brazenly ignored that tradition last time around. What do you think about that? Are you keen to support that and have a premier from somewhere else in the NWT this time around?
I would like to see who’s elected into the assembly first before I start to worry about who the premier is going to be.
So as far as you’re concerned, the people who constitute the next assembly take precedence over what is normally done.
That is exactly how it always, in fact, has been. It’s just a matter of convention as to where the premier comes from. I think there’s a recognition that, as I said earlier on, there are more differences between Yellowknife and elsewhere than otherwise. And so there’s, I think, a desire to see somebody outside of Yellowknife.
And finally, what does the 20th Assembly’s group of 19 MLAs need to have that the 19th didn’t, do you think?
Hopefully, less emergencies and crises. That would be really nice as a starting point. And I really do hope that – just as I’ve had my experience that budget negotiations require a level of trust, trust first of all that I was going to go and convey back to my colleagues, but also trust that we would follow through, that we were sharing the information that we needed to, and that we were all going to act in a manner that was really looking at the best interests of the whole of the territory – really it’s a fundamental trust, and it sounds simple, but it’s very easy to lose that when we aren’t communicating with one another, when you are feeling that you aren’t heard. I did feel, in those processes that I was involved with, that there was always a way to find a path back to it and I hope that we can, all 19 of us, maintain that.