Another premier from Yellowknife? “I’m kind-of surprised,” declared Edward Sangris, the Chief of Dettah, as Caroline Cochrane became the Northwest Territories’ next premier.
Sangris, who is also a spokesperson for the Akaitcho Territory Government, told Cabin Radio his surprise did not end there. He had expected Jackson Lafferty, the MLA for Monfwi, to emerge victorious from Thursday’s secret ballot among MLAs to decide the territory’s new leader.
Four people put their name forward for the position of premier: Cochrane, Lafferty, Hay River North’s RJ Simpson, and Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos. It took three rounds of voting to elect Cochrane, the MLA for Yellowknife’s Range Lake.
Cochrane’s predecessor, Bob McLeod, led the NWT for eight years while representing Yellowknife South. Typically, the territory has rotated the premiership between the capital and other communities.
“One of the things that I’ve heard along the way was that they wanted a premier from outside of the city,” said Sangris, reflecting on the priorities of the 19 MLAs decided to choose Cochrane. (The precise number of them who voted for Cochrane was not publicized. Results of each round of voting were secret.)
“Those are the things that happen when you’re dealing with politics, I guess,” Sangris concluded.
He did, however sound a note of optimism, saying the occupants of the 19th Legislative Assembly look “a little bit brighter” than those of the past four years.
“There are a lot more women as a government, so maybe we might see changes,” he said.
Cochrane, who will govern alongside four other women in her cabinet of seven, has vowed to change the way things are done. In a brief acceptance speech as premier-elect on Thursday, she promised the NWT would see its “most progressive government” yet.
In order to progress, Sangris said, Cochrane and her cabinet must change some longstanding NWT government policies. Without going into detail, he said those policies were upholding a “status quo” since 1967.
“Sometimes it was difficult to get straight answers because they had to toe the line on their policies,” Sangris said of the outgoing McLeod government. As an example, Sangris said he had sought certainty on a new school in Dettah – but could only be told by the NWT government that such a school was “on the radar.”
Sangris hoped new cabinet members would shake up the NWT’s bureaucracy. Some of the territory’s senior managers, he added, “have been there for so long, most of them think they’re untouchable.
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“We know the deputy ministers are pushing the agenda of the government, day-to-day operations,” Sangris warned, “and some of them are stuck to the policies. So, unless [Cochrane and her cabinet] give direction to change it, they won’t have any changes.”
Ernest Betsina, Chief of Ndilo, echoed Sangris in calling for Cochrane to prioritize the settling of land claims. Both said the issue would be top of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s list.
“I’m hoping that this will be a good start, a good working relationship with her,” Betsina said. “I’m hoping that whatever we meet about, she’ll push it through her cabinet to make sure our issues get resolved.”
Cochrane is a known quantity to many NWT leaders through her past four years as a minister.
“She’s always honest and has the right questions, understands the issues. I’m looking forward to a new four years,” said Garry Bailey, president of the NWT Métis Nation, on Thursday. He, too, listed land claims as his focus.
“We’ve been after that for a long time,” said Bailey. “Dealing with taxation of cabins, we have a few minor issues left in our claim – and she was on cabinet so she’s well aware of what they are.”
Asked how Cochrane could push forward land claims, Bailey laughed and said: “Well, she’s the boss.”
He added: “Be reasonable and understand that we are the first people of the Northwest Territories of Canada. Work forward with respect … and make sure that we co-exist together and recognize each other’s rights.”
Cochrane, narrowly re-elected in Range Lake in a two-way race, has experience as the minister of housing, education, and public works, among other portfolios. Prior to her role in government, she was a social worker.
Other Indigenous governments approached for comment on Thursday did not have spokespeople immediately available.
Cochrane received congratulatory messages from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau among others. “Together, we will make life more affordable for families, and make it easier for them to find a place to call home,” Trudeau said in a statement.
Premier of Nunavut Joe Savikataaq congratulated Cochrane while speaking in his territory’s legislature. “I look forward to working together to show Canadians how vibrant the North and our people are,” Savikataaq later wrote on Twitter.