Caroline Cochrane became the NWT’s premier-elect on Thursday as MLAs, in three rounds of voting, chose her to lead the territory until 2023.
During last month’s NWT election campaign, Cochrane had told Cabin Radio “it’s time” for a second female premier in the territory’s history – saying she still had work to do.
While fighting for re-election, she used the early September interview to acknowledge, for the first time, her interest in leading the territory as premier.
On this page, read the extensive interview – originally published on September 5 – in which Cochrane sets out how she believes the Northwest Territories should be governed over the next four years.
Calling for renewed investment in education across the board, Cochrane said: “Early childhood development, I’ve said that forever. Prevention is key … if we don’t do that, we’re always doing crisis intervention. And that’s not the answer.”
Positioning herself as a woman who challenged cabinet’s norms as a minister, Cochrane expressed pride in the way she said she had worked with regular MLAs to develop the NWT’s plans for a new polytechnic university.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Cochrane’s interview was first broadcast on September 5 and again on October 24.
This interview was recorded on September 4, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What are your priorities for the next four years?
Caroline Cochrane: There’s a lot of priorities in the next government. We have a declining economy, so we need to look at boosting our economy. We need to look at promoting mineral exploration, people know that that’s my background.
We also need to look at diversifying. We have over 100,000 tourists that come through Yellowknife on an annual basis. We need to capitalize on some of that revenue that’s coming in and look at how we can expand on that.
We need to work on our polytechnic university, that’s an exciting project that has to come to fruition, making sure that post-secondary students have quality accredited courses, and that the whole world knows what we’re doing.
We need to look at early childhood development. Our children are struggling, they’re not ready for school – not all children, but many of our children. In fact, we’re in the lowest percentage across Canada. So we need to boost that, more support for parents, and it’s not only teachers or social workers or healthcare professionals, the whole community is going to need to take part in that. But we need to start the conversations.
We need to put more money into schools. Junior kindergarten is good. We thought there’d be more problems with it, I thought there’d be a lot more problems with it. There are still some daycare issues. We need more daycares. However, JK may help with the developmental asset-building of children, so that’s important. But we have children that are coming in and our inclusive schooling is not enough, we need to put more money into inclusive schooling so all children have a chance to succeed in life. That’s important.
We’re bringing in 49 youth mental health counsellors to deal with our schools, in-school youth professional counsellors, that’s exciting. That means that we’ll address some of the dropout rates. We’ll also be looking at youth suicide, things that every person knows that when you’re a teenager, it’s really tough time. So that will help with that.
We need to look at our healthcare system. I’m hearing lots of complaints. So I think the best way we need to do that is what I tried to do with housing, and what I think is the best plan for any program: ask the people. We need to ask the nurses, the doctors, the hospital staff, all of them, the janitors, everybody, we need to ask the public what’s working, what’s not working, where we need to go.
Housing, we still have work to do on it. Financially, though, we’re OK with that because of the federal government. Money is coming in with that. But the rest of that takes money. So we need to look at the beginning, at our finances. We need to take a really hard look. And I know people don’t like that when we do those things, but we need to look at where we’re spending. Again, from the bottom up.
I’m sure you’ve already done that. What do you look at when you say we need to take a really hard look?
Often what happens is when budgets come through, they come fast and furious. Years go by really quickly. There’s negotiations in the house, there’s deliberations. But we need to have more focus.
The last assembly, one of the deficits that I’ve seen in that assembly was that there were so many priorities that nothing got really done appropriately.
Everything got some work done to it, which is great. But if you have 300 priorities, how do you make sure that any one of them is doing great?
So we need to bring that together and really focus on what will help people and what will help the economy. And that’s where we should be starting with our funding base. From that, then we look at the niceties in life. And I know, like I said, that’s tough. But focusing on revenues to bring in, our tourist industry, other potentials, you know, exploration, etc.
This is always a hard question but, when you raise issues like, “OK, we need to look at our priorities, have fewer priorities, rein in some of our spending,” the obvious question is: where? Where would you look at right now and say, “OK, that is a nice-to-have, but right now, we can’t afford it”?
So it’s not a matter of reining in our spending. It’s more a matter of restructuring our spending, looking at where it’s going.
It would be very pompous of me to stand here at this point and say, “This is what we need to do.” I find politicians that do that are not really speaking for the people, we’re speaking for ourselves. So like I said earlier, the best people to ask are the people affected by it.
I did that with the housing program and I think that was the answer. My background is in social work, twenty-some years of my life I’ve worked in housing. When I got in, I knew I didn’t have all the answers. So I asked the people, and you know what? They gave me the answers. And I put them into short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals, and I worked towards slamming off those short-term as fast as I could. And I think that’s what we need to do with all of our programming across the government. Ask the people.
The problem, though, Caroline, surely is that for all 230 mandate items, there are people affected by all 230 – who will equally say, “Well, yeah, we need more money over here, because this is affecting me.” And it’s how you prioritize those. If we were going to pick three, where would you say, “Right, this is where we need to really focus”? The next four years, three things the territory has to get done. What are they?
That’s a great question and I almost want to say that it’s a better question for a male candidate. Women are very… we think about everything, life isn’t so easy as saying three things.
But I do think that we need to focus on our people. So if we’re talking about the economy, which we need to look at because everybody’s worried about that, you need jobs, we need jobs. People aren’t going to stay here if we don’t have work. But then at the same time, we need to look at our education system. Because if we’re not training our youth to be able to access those jobs, what are we doing?
And one of your last acts as education minister here, before we broke for the election period, was to issue quite a damning assessment in the legislature of your own education system, saying it was failing. Why has that been so hard to address?
There’s a lot of issues that come with that. And like I said, attendance is a huge one. The first thing we need to do is we need to get our kids ready before they come to school, so focus on getting them to the door. Early childhood development, I’ve said that forever. Prevention is key. Some things may fall off when you’re looking at prevention-focused but if we don’t do that, we’re always doing crisis intervention. And that’s not the answer. We’ve been doing that forever. Indigenous peoples can tell you that story from residential school.
At some point, we need to step back and say, “What is the issue? Where do we start? How do we deal with that?” Early intervention is the key in my belief, focusing on child development, focusing on getting kids educated, focused on bringing our economy up, bringing our skill development to that.
Usually I would put housing on the table but with the amount of money, that’s not going to be my priority at this time, because that’s got the money behind it. So that’s not one of my major priorities. Still a concern, but not where I want to focus the GNWT money, because there’s money there. So education, healthcare, and the economy are my three priorities.
Four years ago, when you were looking to be elected for the first time, you talked about having a 15-year strategic plan for the economy, and for investment in the NWT. Four years later, how do you assess where we’re at with that?
I still believe we need that. I don’t believe we have that. And I’ve heard the argument that you can’t bind other governments in that, and I agree with that – however, I also know that long-term planning is good to have. And long-term planning should be living documents, they’re meant to change constantly on an annual basis, they’re reviewed. Any good program is reviewed annually. Same with any documents.
What it does, though, if you have a long-term plan and you work towards it, it gives you a goal. We know that the mines are projected to close in another 15 years. Why are we just… we talk about it all the time, but we haven’t put down on paper.
And maybe it’s because I’m very visual but I want to see it on paper, I want to know what I’m working towards. I want the public to know what we’re working towards, that there’s some goals, some feedback into that. People can say, yeah, you know, I have faith in being here, or man, I’m going to jump ship now cuz it’s not good!
As a cabinet minister, how easy did you find it to express this view over the past four years and say things like, “Where’s our 15-year plan?”
So I’m treading on thin ice because right now is the pre-election period. And so, as a cabinet minister, I’m not supposed to be talking as a minister.
Residents would like to hear you talk about your experience as a minister, because that’s how you’ve represented them for four years.
Absolutely. What I’ll talk about is the process. There’s a difference between being a regular MLA and a cabinet minister. There’s been a few times that I’ve been a cabinet member – and I’m not going to go into them – that I haven’t really felt confident in what we’re doing as a government.
So cabinet ministers are bound by what’s called solidarity. And so even though sometimes you might not like everything, you vote, because you are the government and you have to support your colleagues.
Regular MLAs have the luxury of being able to say what they want, whether they know it’s going to happen, whether they know it’s not going to happen, whether they know it’s the right thing or not, they are allowed to put up their hand and say, “What are you going to do about it?”
Many times, I’ve thought about walking over and saying, “What are you going to do about it?” Because that’s the public way, it can get ministers moving. The power that I have that’s different than a regular MLA, as a minister, is we do our arguing behind closed doors.
When I was younger, I was way more hot-headed, a strong advocate, a “give-me-my-rights” kind of a person. I found that closed doors, lots of doors. So as I’ve aged, and I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that it’s really important to pick your battles. But when I pick a battle, I think you know me well enough, I don’t let go, I fight that battle to the end. And when I have a battle, I usually get my way with it.
All right, let’s talk about a big battle. Let’s talk about a polytechnic university for the North, which is an issue where you’ve had a commitment both as a minister, but also as an MLA for Yellowknife as well. Now you’ve taken pains over the past few years to say, “I can separate the two and I will do what is best for the whole of the territory while being a Yellowknife MLA.” What would you say to some of your residents who might say, “Well, hang on, we want to see the university based in Yellowknife. That’ll have a big impact on our economy here. It’ll mean great things for Yellowknife.” You’ve always said, “Well, hang on, no.” What would you say to those residents?
What I would say to those residents – and sometimes what I say, and I hope that doesn’t happen, is I get little clippings from it and it gets kind-of misconstrued in what I mean – is that we have three vibrant communities in three different regions that have three different populations, three different needs, and three different wishes. We also have 30 other communities that have different needs as well. We have a campus in Fort Smith, a beautiful campus in Fort Smith. We have a beautiful campus in Inuvik. Why would we tear those down?
We don’t have a beautiful campus in Yellowknife. It’s not that it’s not a great building – it’s an NGO, I appreciate that they provide that. However, at the same time, it’s bulging at the seams. It’s not adequate. So we need a campus.
People often think if it’s a headquarters – and that’s where I’ve been misconstrued, so I’m going to try to be a little bit more clear – when there’s a headquarters, everybody has to come to one place. Why? We’re in a day of technology and it’s time to start thinking about how we reach people where they are, because that’s what I heard in the review as well.
So, for example, programs like the nursing program that we’re really successful in, that has to be campus-based. You need to have labs, you need to have the techs. But our poor social work program, which was dear to my heart, and our education program, have more practicums that can be done in the community.
So why couldn’t we have a course offered in Yellowknife where we have students and, if it’s only five students, it’s five students in a classroom… but we have the video conferencing technology – like over 20 years ago when I went to school in Kamloops and we brought in Williams Lake students. Let’s tap into that so we can offer the same social work program or teachers’ education program or whatever program that doesn’t need to be so lab-based or campus-based, so that we have the numbers and we’re offering it in Colville Lake, Łutselkʼe, every community here in the Northwest Territories.
It’s not about a headquarters and it’s not about not having no campuses, it’s about using what we have and using the technology. That’s where society is going.
If we don’t go there, and we only offer campus-based, we’re behind the boat already. And we’re going to be majorly behind the boat – this whole moving to a polytechnic university that’s accredited, based on best practices? It’s about best practices. Best practices in post-secondary are using technology.
Both of us could talk about education all day, we’ve only got a few minutes left. I wanted to ask about the environment. Do you believe that in the time that you’ve been a minister – in the last four years – that the territory government has a handle on climate change, and is taking the correct measures to respond to that?
We all know that. The world is worried about climate change. So I would be a fool, and inappropriate for me to say that we have a handle, it’s under control. We don’t.
What I do want to say, though, is that millions of dollars has been spent in the Northwest Territories studying climate change, because it’s one of the most concerning things around the world internationally. So that millions of dollars is going into the North. It’s people, universities, and colleges from all around the world coming up and accessing that money.
When we become a polytechnic university and we have our own credentials, we’ll be able to tap into that source of funding as well. Not only will it give us more money in research money, which we should be doing, it’s research-based in the North by northerners, and that way it stays in the North.
When people come from Russia or China or wherever they’re coming from internationally, Germany, they take that knowledge with them. And we don’t hear it. Do you hear about climate change knowledge research in the paper? I don’t hear about it.
So we need to start getting more serious, doing our own research, keeping our credentials and focusing seriously on climate change. This is affecting generations.
The final issue I want to raise is government accountability. A lot was made as this last assembly began of government transparency and accountability. Have the steps forward been made that you think should have been made?
Accountability is big to me. I think that every single program and service needs to have measurable outcomes. The departments that I worked on, they know that’s huge for me. Accreditation is my background. I firmly believe in measurable programs and best practices means always researching, so always updating, don’t get stagnant with your programs.
Transparency is a little bit more difficult. I think in all honesty, to be able to have full transparency… I would be as transparent as possible. In fact, some people say I’m too transparent, my departments say I’m too transparent! But in order to have true transparency, I think we need to look at the structure of how we work at the Legislative Assembly. We need to work better together.
There’s this divide between regular MLAs and cabinet that I never knew before I got into politics, and it’s wrong.
I challenged that when I did the polytechnic university. So the normal process is, you decide what you’re going to do as cabinet then you go to the MLAs and then you fight in the house. I didn’t do that with the polytechnic. I went to the MLAs first, to their standing committee, and said, “What do you think?” And then I did work. And then I went to cabinet. And then I went back to standing committee. And by doing that, if you notice in the legislature, I never had that fight.
So I think that in order to be transparent, we need to work better together to build that trust. First you need to feel trusted. And then once that trust is there, we can work on every issue that needs to be open and not have to worry about it. But as much as possible, the public needs to know. It’s your taxpayer money and you have a right to know.
In the spirit of transparency, somebody said to me the other day that Caroline Cochrane would be quite interested in becoming the next premier, should the opportunity arise. Are you?
Well, you know, and in all honesty, people have approached me with that.
I have to say that I’m a bit concerned because we’re losing a huge amount of our experience and cabinet in this current election. There’s only three of us going to be running: Lou Sebert from Fort Smith, myself, and Wally Schumann from Hay River.
I have been asked. I’m watching what happens in the election. I do think that I’ve worked hard. I think that we’ve only had one woman premier in 50 years – it’s time.
However, I also respect the voices of the people. So I will see who gets elected, myself included. And at that point, then I’ll see what… I’ll make a decision on that.