In Caroline Cochrane, the Northwest Territories’ MLAs have chosen a Métis premier who prides herself on her background in social work and her professed ability to listen.
Cochrane spent more than 20 years in social work before entering politics, most recently as chief executive of the Centre for Northern Families, now a Yellowknife-based daycare and support centre for women.
She ran the centre for three years prior to her election as Range Lake MLA in 2015, defeating incumbent Daryl Dolynny.
Promoted to cabinet by her colleagues from the start, she first ran what was then the NWT government’s department of public works (now infrastructure), moving to municipal and community affairs in 2016.
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Cochrane became the education minister in 2018, where she was best-known to residents for leading the NWT government’s planned transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university.
Midway through her first term, Cochrane shared her background – and some of her personal philosophies – with the podcast Women Warriors in a season dedicated to “inspiring Indigenous women.”
Cochrane began by telling host Shelley Wiart, herself a member of the North Slave Métis Alliance, about her “professional and personal journey” into politics.
Below, you can read a lightly edited transcript of Cochrane’s remarks. You can also listen to the podcast in full.
When I was young, 13 years old, I was living on the street already. I had decided to move out of my parents’ home.
I went through many years of struggling until I had my second child. At that point, I realized I wanted help and I didn’t want the same life for my children as I had for myself. I reached out for help, got wonderful help from a lady down south, and changed my life.
I pursued my own education, got a degree in social work, single-parented through it, worked within the non-profit sector for many, many years – over 20 years – and realized that I wanted real change. Not only my own personal change because, at that point in my journey, I think I had become more of a woman who I wanted to identify as, but professionally I was hitting roadblocks. I figured the only way to make change was to change from the top [in politics]. I figured, what did I have to lose?
As a first-term cabinet member I had a really sharp learning curve but, at the same time, I had a privilege in that I had the innocence that comes with not being a regular MLA first, which means I didn’t get stuck in the systems. It was a challenge at the beginning but an asset in the end.
Caroline Cochrane at a funding announcement in June 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
In my life, I consider myself very simple person: get up on the weekend and throw my hair in a ponytail, go out and work on my yard, go to the store if I need something, just kind-of get through life without being too noticed – that was a privilege I didn’t realize I would lose.
Now, when I get up, if I’m going out in my front yard I have to make sure my hair is done, that I have makeup on, that I’m dressed appropriately. If I go to the store, I have to be prepared for a two-hour stop. You give up your personal life to be a politician.
I never let being a politician go to my head. I don’t think I’m any better than anyone else. I don’t expect to be treated any different than anyone else. My family certainly don’t treat me any different than before. The positive part is I use it as a tool for parenting! I have young adult children and I would often say, ‘Be careful what’s on your Facebook because I’m a politician, you know that, right?’ So it actually helps me with my parenting, it gets my children to clean up their Facebook a lot easier than it was before.
We’ve been socialized throughout our life as women to be humble, to not put forward our strengths. If we look too strong, it’s seen as aggressive. So we have a lot of barriers that society has put on us, and that is our biggest enemy. We really have to watch for that and make sure that we keep telling ourselves that we deserve to be here. We are 50 percent of the population. We need to have 50 percent of our leadership be women so that we can truly represent the needs of the population of Canada.
Having more than 20 years’ experience working with homeless women has given me a little bit of knowledge on their background and where they’re coming from, and some of their needs and their challenges as well. My biggest fear when I came on was that everybody was hyped toward one model of working. Throughout my years – with my social work degree, being a mother, being a 56-year-old woman, I’ve realized there is not one answer for anything. You have to look at all the different areas and the different needs of people, and the different ways of of helping people, to be able to address things in a comprehensive way.
My mother is my role model. I know people say that’s not the right answer and I should be picking some strong female role model, but my mother is a strong woman: she raised eight children by herself, six of those being women. I want to honour her and honour all women who have grown and become themselves, become parents, and raised others. It’s a huge thing. We’re all leaders.