Candidates hoping to become the next Premier of the Northwest Territories addressed colleagues in the legislature in a live broadcast on Friday.
Range Lake’s Caroline Cochrane, Monfwi’s Jackson Lafferty, Thebacha’s Frieda Martselos, and Hay River North’s RJ Simpson are the four confirmed candidates.
Nobody else rose on Friday to accept a nomination.
Speeches by the candidates were followed by the opportunity for other MLAs to ask up to two questions of each person who put their names forward.
The next premier will be voted into office on Thursday, October 24.
Bob McLeod stepped down from territorial politics at this month’s election following an unprecedented two terms – eight years – leading the Northwest Territories.
Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie and Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, himself a former Sahtu MLA, sat in the gallery to observe proceedings. A day earlier, the two were among more than a dozen Indigenous delegations to meet with the 19 new MLAs at Yellowknife’s Tree of Peace.
Those Indigenous leaders urged MLAs to repair the NWT government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples and, as a matter of urgency, settle land claims.
Cochrane: ‘Act fast’ on economy
Cochrane, the first to speak on Friday, told colleagues: “As a minister who held seven portfolios over the last four years … I believe I have the experience and commitment to lead in the true spirit of consensus government.”
Cochrane promised to include regular MLAs to a greater extent than the cabinet of the previous four years, and to direct her government to work closely with Indigenous partners.
“Our economy is in trouble,” said Cochrane, pledging a 10-year plan to turn around the NWT’s economic fortunes. “We need to act fast, and we need to act now.”
As an indication of how the territory’s priorities would shift on her watch, Cochrane said she would rename the NWT’s industry ministry, calling it the Department of Economic Diversification and Development. The territory’s environment ministry would become the Department of Environment and Climate Change, while Cochrane would amalgamate the Department of Lands and Department of Municipal and Community Affairs.
“We will have many challenges ahead. If we work together, within the true spirit of consensus government, we will be able to tackle these challenges together and achieve ultimate success,” Cochrane told MLAs.
She pledged a “philosophy of inclusion, transparency, and accountability,” while emphasizing “engagement, collaboration, and innovation.”
Among other items, Cochrane pledged:
- a working group on climate change to ensure plans are “meeting our needs;”
- more funding for the Arctic Energy Alliance;
- work toward a polytechnic university built on “three strong campuses;”
- to “explore options” related to universal childcare; and
- a plan to lobby Ottawa with help from regular MLAs, municipalities, and Indigenous groups.
Lafferty: ‘Strong ally’ in cultural revitalization
Lafferty, speaking second, said: “I believe it is possible for the executive and regular members to work together and achieve a common cause and collective vision. Northerners demand it.”
He told colleagues the NWT needs a leader “who will collaborate and work with all levels of government to get the job done. I believe I am that leader.”
Lafferty welcomed the election of nine female MLAs, saying it would “have a lasting impact” on decisions in the NWT.
However, he cautioned MLAs: “The challenges far outstrip the fiscal resources available to us.”
Promising to listen to and respect different perspectives, Lafferty said he would commit to thoroughly exploring issues before making decisions as premier. “As a premier, I will provide the leadership necessary to keep senior government staff focused completely on priorities set by this House,” he said, saying he would make the civil service “even better [with] a tighter ship and greater efficiency.”
Lafferty said people would be able to look back on his government as one that “put cooperation first” and created “strong relationships … in which cabinet and regular members found a way to work closely together to produce programs and services for all northerners.
“I promise every member’s voice will be heard in this House,” he concluded.
Among other items, Lafferty pledged:
- action on outstanding land claims with “meaningful, equitable” relationships;
- a strengthened relationship with Ottawa;
- support for business development in small communities, targeting tourism, research and development, arts and culture, and infrastructure;
- that the wisdom of Elders would be taken into account in countering climate change, with Indigenous knowledge “holding the same weight as science;” and
- to be a “strong ally” for cultural and language revitalization.
Martselos: ‘Strength, compassion, and perseverance’
Martselos, former Chief of the Salt River First Nation, opened by telling MLAs it would be the duty of her government to “provide certainty” to NWT residents about their future.
“If chosen to be premier, I believe one of our first priorities should be our Aboriginal people,” said Martselos, adding: “It is time for the Northwest Territories to fully endorse and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” She urged the settling of land claims “as quickly as possible.”
Saying the health system in the NWT “compares favourably” to other parts of Canada, Martselos said improvements were needed to ensure a consistent level of service across the territory. She said the government could save money spent on treatment by promoting healthy lifestyles.
Martselos had earlier insisted her home town of Fort Smith be the hub of a future polytechnic university. On Friday, she chose not to focus on where the university might be based, instead saying: “We must work to ensure this is a truly unique university, where people from across the North, Canada, and other parts of the world will want to come and study.”
Concluding, Martselos said: “I feel I have the personal qualities required for the premier of a consensus government: strength, compassion, and perseverance.”
Among other items, Martselos pledged:
- universal subsidized childcare “is a must;”
- that the NWT government would maintain its goal of “keeping families together and united;”
- scrutiny of the NWT Housing Corporation’s mandate with more opportunities for home ownership;
- investment in infrastructure while the territory’s debt is carefully managed; and
- “expansion of tourism beyond the territorial capital.”
Simpson: ‘Regaining faith’ in NWT government
Last to speak, Simpson focused for the most part on how his premiership might improve the mechanisms of government in the Northwest Territories.
Claiming there is “a sense of renewal in the air,” Simpson said the NWT’s MLAs must address “fundamental issues at the heart of our ability to govern.” Among them, he said, are accountability, how consensus government works, and relationships with other governments.
“I don’t want to disparage our current premier. I believe he has always acted with the best intentions of the territory in mind. However, I think the territory will benefit from a new approach,” said Simpson. “People have lost faith in our ability to deliver results, and many believe the system is no longer fair.”
Addressing the issue of how cabinet and regular members work together, Simpson said responsibility for that would ultimately rest with him as premier. “The buck has to stop somewhere. If there are problems with a minister’s performance or attitude, the premier must address it immediately,” he said, suggesting he would remove so-called “cabinet solidarity” – in which cabinet votes en-bloc – for votes of confidence in ministers.
“If I’m premier, I’m happy to work with the other members and incorporate their ideas. If I’m not, I hope we can still make the legislature more functional and provide more prosperity for the people of the Northwest Territories,” he concluded.
Among other items, Simpson pledged:
- improved representation of women and Indigenous peoples among NWT government senior management;
- “discussions about the future of the GNWT” and its role as land claims and self-government agreements are settled;
- a focus on placing more decision-making authority in communities;
- to ensure the bureaucracy does not “run the show;” and
- to “open channels, both formal and informal,” making meetings between the premier and regular members a matter of routine.
Questions and answers
For the first time, candidates for premier took questions from MLAs with answers broadcast live.
Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre asked candidates whether they would commit to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, known colloquially by its acronym, Undrip.
Martselos said she would fully endorse and implement Undrip. Simpson said he had no problem implementing the agreement, but also called for examining the uncertainty it could bring. “While we heard a lot of support for implementing Undrip, we also heard a lot of support for certainty,” he said, referencing the earlier meeting with Indigenous leaders.
Cochrane called for Undrip’s full implementation, as well as implementing “in a true spirit” the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Lafferty said more engagement with communities was needed before proceeding.
Rocky Simpson, the new MLA for Hay River South, asked a question from a resident regarding outgoing Premier Bob McLeod’s assertion to Cabin Radio that he governed with “cabinet and three friends”. Simpson asked the four how they would avoid this type of governance in the legislature.
Simpson’s son, RJ, said that approach could not be completely eliminated, but holding “fireside chats” – regular meetings between the premier and other politicians – could help ensure “issues don’t become problems.”
Cochrane said cabinet needs to stop “cramming legislation down people’s throats.” Taking support for the polytechnic university as an example, which “wasn’t slaughtered all over the floor like junior kindergarten,” Cochrane said taking legislation to the relevant standing committee of regular MLAs first was a good way to get it passed. “If we don’t get legislation passed, it means that we as cabinet didn’t do a good-enough job, and we need to take ownership of that,” she said.
Lafferty said he would work with all members, regardless of whether they agree or not, stressing the need to be unified when approaching the federal government and other groups. Martselos said she would listen, be approachable, and maintain an open-door policy if she becomes premier.
Answering a question from Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby about how to keep jobs and contracts with northerners, both Lafferty and Cochrane said the government’s Business Incentive Policy was not working well, though neither suggested solutions.
Cochrane and Simpson suggested breaking up larger infrastructure projects into smaller projects. Consulting with industry and small businesses is also needed, Simpson added. Martselos said the solution lies in Indigenous communities and in being creative with investment.
Decision next week
Following Friday’s session, MLAs will put the process of choosing a new leader on hold until next Thursday, October 24.
On October 24, each MLA can ask one more question of candidates for premier before selecting one of the candidates by secret ballot. A speaker and six cabinet members (two from the north of the NWT, two from the Yellowknife area, and two from the south of the NWT) will also be chosen that day. The new premier then gives the cabinet members their portfolios, such as industry minister or education minister.
The process by which the new premier is being chosen remains, essentially, unchanged from 2015 and previous years. Some residents criticized the decision earlier this week not to make any significant changes to that process, suggesting it marked “more of the same” – and lacked transparency – after many successful candidates had run in the NWT’s election on a platform of change.
The MLA for Yellowknife North, Rylund Johnson, responded to some of those criticisms earlier this week – saying he had pressed colleagues for change but they had ultimately chosen to keep most of the process the same.
“I personally believe the vote should be public and will be disclosing how I vote,” Johnson wrote. “Yet ultimately the 19 members came to the consensus that we should largely keep the process the same.
“Significant changes were discussed in detail but it was decided fundamental changes would best be done after striking a special committee to consider them and allowing public engagement.
“Discussions over the last week have been extremely productive, positive, and I hope we will keep this spirit of cooperation alive after we have divided ourselves into cabinet and regular members.”
The new premier, speaker, and cabinet are formally sworn in on October 25.