Range Lake’s Caroline Cochrane will be the Northwest Territories’ next premier after being selected by Legislative Assembly colleagues on Thursday.
Cochrane, one of two candidates with past cabinet experience, beat Hay River North’s RJ Simpson, Monfwi’s Jackson Lafferty, and Thebacha’s Frieda Martselos in a secret ballot.
Cochrane becomes the second female premier in NWT history, following Nellie Cournoyea, who led the territory from 1991 until 1995. Her win also means the premiership will remain in Yellowknife for another four years. She will become the only current female premier in Canada.
Bob McLeod, the former MLA for Yellowknife South, held the position for the past eight years. Historically, the premiership has ordinarily rotated between Yellowknife and other communities.
“I want to begin by thanking all of the people of the NWT for having faith in me,” Cochrane began after the results of the third and final round of voting were announced – noting she did not write a speech for the moment.
“My commitment to all of you is … that we need to work better together. My commitment is to always have an open door,” she said.
“We will make these next four years the most progressive government in the Northwest Territories.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, congratulating Cochrane in a statement, said: “I look forward to working closely with Premier Cochrane and the Government of the Northwest Territories to address the needs and priorities of northerners.
“Together, we will make life more affordable for families, and make it easier for them to find a place to call home. We will also bring clean power to more communities, and connect them to the reliable, high-speed internet they need to build a better future.”
Last week, making her pitch for the job, Cochrane had promised to “act fast” on the economy.
“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,” she said at the time, promising regular MLAs and Indigenous partners would be more involved under her leadership than in the past.
Cochrane proposes a 10-year plan to turn around the NWT’s economy, suggesting she would rename departments to sharpen their focus on economic diversification and climate change.
She has also 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.
Martselos was the first candidate to be eliminated. Simpson, then Lafferty were rejected in second and third rounds of voting. Only Lafferty and Cochrane had previously served as ministers.
‘The people have a say’
Earlier on Thursday, each MLA had the option to ask the four candidates one further question – having already questioned them last week – during a publicly broadcast session.
Topics raised ranged from how the candidates would build relationships with the federal Liberal minority government, through to environmental priorities and relations with Indigenous governments.
Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek asked what she described the simplest yet hardest question: “Why are you seeking this office?”
“For most of my life,” replied Cochrane, “I heard the saying that you can make changes from the outside in and the inside out … and then I had an epiphany and I thought, ‘Why do we always talk about the inside out and the outside in? Why don’t we talk about the top?
“I believe the reason I’m here is because we can do better … My heart is why I’m here and I will work hard to make sure that every member’s voice is heard and that they have a say. And that the people, more importantly, have a say.”
Members also questioned candidates about how they would work to finalize land claims and preserve and promote Indigenous languages.
Reflecting on the acrimonious last round of collective bargaining between the NWT government and Union of Northern Workers (UNW), MLAs asked the candidates how they would ensure a successful round of upcoming negotiations as premier. The agreement governing NWT government workers is again up for negotiation from 2021.
“If binding arbitration is something people want, then we need to put that back in,” Cochrane said, adding the right to strike should be respected.
“This should not be an adversarial process,” she continued, saying legislation should be reviewed and timelines considered to ensure the NWT government and UNW settle matters in a timely manner.
MLAs will now choose six cabinet members on Thursday afternoon in a series of further secret ballots. Two members must come from the northern NWT districts, two from the Yellowknife area, and two from the South Slave or Dehcho.
Earlier, Mackenzie Delta MLA Frederick Blake Jr was acclaimed as speaker-elect.
Emelie Peacock and Ollie Williams contributed reporting.