Politics

Cochrane 'prepared to make unpopular decisions' to do what's best for NWT

The shelves are empty in the office of the Premier of the Northwest Territories. Caroline Cochrane moved in two days ago, and decorating was not top of the priority list.

Number one on the priority list was: a priority list. Late on Friday, a day after the premier and six cabinet members were chosen, the full group of 19 MLAs published a set of 22 guiding priorities for the next four years.

Delivering on them falls primarily to Cochrane.

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If those 22 items lend some certainty of direction, the premier is still defining her government's tone.

Initially promising the "most progressive government" in NWT history, Cochrane on Saturday – in an extensive interview with Cabin Radio – sought to clarify what she meant, insisting a clear difference exists between the words "progressive" and "left-wing."

If you want a book, write a book on which portfolios you should have. If you think your baby pictures would be best in determining it, then I have provided that option.

CAROLINE COCHRANE'S INSTRUCTION TO CABINET MEMBERS

"I don't use it in the way the theory says: that progressive means you're on the left, conservative means you're on the right," Cochrane said, sitting next to an empty bookcase beneath a blank wall.

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"I mean progressive government in that we will move forward in a different direction based on the needs of the people, not based on the needs of the people in power."

Her government, she said, would focus on the "higher picture" of where the territory needed to be in four years' time. Asked if she would be prepared to make unpopular decisions to get there, Cochrane replied: "I did that in the last assembly. I don't see that changing."

'My strength, my weakness'

The 59-year-old's ascent to the premiership was not, at any point, a certainty. She won re-election by just 18 votes over challenger Hughie Graham in her Range Lake district. Only after three secret ballots did fellow MLAs name her the territory's new leader.

Acknowledging but ultimately dismissing criticism that the NWT has now had a Yellowknife-based premier for three straight terms, Cochrane suggested the premier's gender – she is the second female leader in the territory's history – should be at least as important as their home region.

Her cabinet members were spending the weekend crafting briefings for the new premier in which they highlight their experience and desire, if any, for specific portfolios. There is no exact date by which ministers must have departments assigned – in 2015, it took then-premier Bob McLeod a week.

Setting out her vision as McLeod's successor, Cochrane on Saturday said:

  • her government would operate to a more streamlined mandate than its predecessor;
  • she would press ahead with evaluating whether some departments required name changes or amalgamation;
  • the NWT would remain pro-mining while emphasizing economic diversification; and
  • she would, at a national level, tell provincial colleagues that "by strengthening the North, we strengthen all of Canada."

Asked if she would adopt the previous premier's political strategies nationally – McLeod co-signed a letter to Justin Trudeau with conservative premiers earlier this summer, for which he received criticism from some MLAs – Cochrane intimated she would not seek to support any one political ideology or party.

Boldly, Cochrane said her government's ability to settle land claims and self-government agreements would in large part rest on her own strength of personality.

Asked how she believes her cabinet can make more progress in those areas than previous governments, Cochrane said her own honesty – "that's my strength, it's my weakness, but people know where I stand" – would be key to building trust and concluding negotiations.

"That is the beginning. That's what I bring as a strength and hopefully we'll be able to work forward," she said.

Below, find a transcript of the full interview. An audio version will be broadcast on Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News from 12pm on October 28, 2019, then made available by podcast.


This interview was recorded on October 26, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: How's your week been?

Premier Caroline Cochrane: My week has been extremely busy. It's been exciting. There are a lot of emotions. That's how my week's been.

The 19 MLAs have already issued a list of priorities. There were 22 things on it. Of those, which is the one that excites you the most?

They all excite me. I've stated many, many times: there's not one priority that should be over top of the other. I believe every single priority is an issue that needs to be addressed and I'm glad to see them all on the list. It's a matter, again, of firming up the priorities, firming up the mandate and the people – the MLAs, cabinet, all of us – working together to find what the priorities, in order, should be.

When can we expect you to have the full road map ready to go and to be able to start taking action, rather than getting through the planning and the mandate process?

Well, let's be honest, I've just been appointed for one day now, so the priority right now is to figure out where my stationery is, where my books are. Once that's done, the next priority is building up the relationships, pulling my team together. So I'm not going to give a concrete time on issues. The first focus is getting our team together, finding out their strengths or areas of concern – the areas that they want to do – and then, from that, I'll make decisions on how we move forward.

When do you expect to know who your different ministers are going to be, for which departments?

That process is just beginning. I have some knowledge of some ministers that were here in the last assembly, but I don't have a lot of knowledge on the new ministers, so I've asked them to actually provide to me, over the weekend, their strengths. I told them, "Provide me what you want." Job descriptions… if you want a book, write a book on which portfolios you should have. If you think your baby pictures would be best in determining it, then I have provided that option to them.

Combining departments? Those are things that we need to look at.

CAROLINE COCHRANE

I need to be very open in this process of deciding. I need to look at what they have to offer, what their strengths are, where I would need to provide extra support. At that time, it will be decided.

During the process of campaigning to become the premier, you had talked about changing the names of some departments and maybe merging some other departments. Talk me through your thoughts on how that might look.

There are areas that I think we need to look at regarding the departments. We talk about, for example, economic diversification – we talk about it all the time. If that's a goal, then why should our departments not reflect what they should be? Those name changes are fairly easy. Combining departments? I mean, those are things that we need to look at, we need to discuss with MLAs.

But the reason I was looking at [the Department of] Lands and stuff is because, as we move into self-governments, those are conversations we need to begin. So it was just to put it out there as a feeler: where do we belong as the Government of the Northwest Territories, once we've settled these self-governments with all the Indigenous? It's moving into that thought process is what I'm trying to challenge.

Settling a lot of that, in terms of land claims and self-governments, is the first thing on the list of the 22 priorities. Now, I don't believe they were in any order, but I think it's noteworthy that it was the first item on the list. That has been a priority for years in the Northwest Territories. What do you believe your government can do to approach that differently and finally gain some momentum?

I think most people that know me, and most interviewers that would know me, know I'm very personable as a person, and sometimes not as reserved as maybe I should be. But I think the key is building the trust. If people believe I have a hidden agenda, then that will not go towards building that trust. So I've always said I'm honest to a point – that's my strength, it's my weakness, but people know where I stand and so I'm willing to put it on the table. I think that we need to meet. It's one of my first directions – I have given directions, and one of my first was to make those meetings happen. Sitting together and building that relationship, putting it on the table. That is the beginning. That's what I bring as a strength and hopefully we'll be able to work forward.

One of the items on that priority list had a very specific evaluative criterion to it, which was to ensure that we have 20-percent more resident NWT healthcare professionals by the end of this term. Can we expect all of the priorities, once the mandate is written, to come with similar evaluation criteria? Specific benchmarks that your government intends to hit?

I would say yes. I think that is what the MLAs have been saying. That isn't a commitment that I've said publicly or anything, but that is best practice, and I have said many times that one of my other strengths I bring is the experience I have with accreditation – bringing agencies up to accreditation. Accreditation best practice says: any mandate you have, it should have timelines, it should have defined authorities and it should have measurable outcomes and evaluation criteria.

Caroline Cochrane interviewed by Ollie Williams

Caroline Cochrane answers a question in an office almost entirely devoid of decoration, two days after being selected to lead the territory. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

So as we move forward, I mean, all new programs within the GNWT have taken that philosophy over the years. It's not a new thing. So why would I change that now?

You say it's not a new thing – the last mandate for the GNWT had 230 items on it but it was bloomin' hard to evaluate a lot of them, because they didn't come with, "Here's what we intend this action to actually deliver." They said, "We will do this," but there was very little, "Here's what it will deliver." Will you change that?

Absolutely. One of the things, when I look at the last assembly and their mandate, was that it's really difficult to make 230 actions a priority. Instead of trying to address every single action that will bring you to making sure that you have met your goal, maybe we need to look more higher-picture and be more reasonably focused.

I was trying to get the priorities down lower than 22. We did a little bit of progress from the last assembly [which issued 25]. However, now I need to make sure that we don't have 200 mandates to meet those. So it's a different way of thinking, a different way of bringing it forward.

You are another Yellowknife premier. People have not been slow in pointing that out – there have been indigenous leaders, for example, that have openly expressed surprise that the premiership has returned to Yellowknife for a third successive term. What will you do to ensure that services, job creation, and other opportunities are equally shared among all communities of the Northwest Territories?

People know me. I've always said judge me by my work, not judge me by what you think you've heard in the paper or you think you've heard from people. Throughout my life, I have always worked with smaller communities. I've always been very inclusive in my work.

I come from a family of 10 people, I didn't come from a place that said, "It's all about me." This is my life. It's my focus. When I've walked into the regions I've always been honest with other ministers at the time, and I will bring that forward.

I believe in consensus government and I heard the reasoning about, you know, [the premiership] goes from the north to the south to Yellowknife. And I do believe that there needs to be some transference within that to be able to represent all. But what people are not talking about is: we've only had one woman premier. So how is consensus government only spoken about by regions versus representation of our population?

You've promised this will be the NWT's most progressive government. How will we address things ranging on a spectrum from the clear crisis of domestic violence that the Northwest Territories has, through to the lack of services for people with special needs throughout the NWT? There are so many things that need attention. How will your government begin to approach fixing that?

My government will begin to approach that by asking the people.

For too long, leaders have said: "I have the answers." People want to change. The old way of working was, "I have the answers, I will tell you what I'm doing." My number-one mandate in my letters to ministers will be, no longer will we be telling the people we have all the answers and we will tell you what's best. It will be asking the people. Every major decision, as much as possible – realizing sometimes decisions need to be made quickly – but, asking the people.

There are things we could be doing that may not cost millions of dollars.

CAROLINE COCHRANE

For example, when I was the minister of housing, I stood up and said, "Even though I have 20 years' experience working with homeless people, I am not the expert, I do not have all the answers." But asking every resident in the Northwest Territories provided the answers. And that is how I want to see all government programs run. We are servants for the people. When we say leaders, sometimes people misconstrue that and think that they are the bosses. We're not the bosses, we're the servants. And if we are to be the servants of the people, then we need to meet the needs of the people, not ourselves. And that has to be our number-one focus.

You touched on this a little in your answer there: listening takes time. There are a lot of sectors right now crying out and saying, "We need urgent action. This must be fixed now." Where do you expect that balance to lie in terms of how long it's going to take your government to seek the answers to some of these questions before it starts taking action?

I think it would be foolish for any new government to jump in and get caught in the "we need action now" because every priority needs action now – that's why we have so many priorities. Many, many stakeholders are coming forward and saying, "Please make my issue a priority." That has been happening since the election began, before the election started.

Even though listening and hearing the people does take time, we need to be open to all stakeholder feedback. It's not the first person that jumps in and gets the appointment with our new government. It's taking the time that it takes – and it does – to hear from all stakeholders.

Again, when I took housing, I didn't come in, in the first session, and say we were changing the world. I was hit hard in the first few sessions. Once I defined the needs of the people and we could put them into short, mid-term, and long term goals, at that point it was really hard for anyone to fight me, because the changes were based on the desires of the people. How can you fight that when you're representing the people's voice, not our voice?

You mentioned stakeholder feedback. I'll give you some feedback from some mining executives I spoke to yesterday. I asked them: "What one thing could this new government immediately do to try to help?" And they said, "Well, more than anything, we need the government to say we're a mining territory. We're pro-mining and we want mining here." Will you say that?

I will definitely say that. I've said that in my speeches, that we are pro-mining, we're pro-economic diversity. Mines provide almost 40 percent of our GDP. I can think of hardly any families I know that don't have either a relative, a family member, or a business in their community that is reliant on that industry. Mining is part of the answer in economic diversity.

Diversity does not mean taking mining out of it. It means strengthening our industries, strengthening our tourism, strengthening the polytechnic university. That is diversification. It's not one or the other.

Why do you think those mining executives still need reassuring that the territory is pro-mining?

Well, it would be foolish for them not to. We have three diamond mines that have been announcing for many, many years that they're coming to end-of-life. If we take the opinion that it provides almost 40 percent of our GDP, then that affects many families. That affects almost half of our population. We all need to be cognitive of what we're facing.

You have mentioned diversification. The list of priorities very clearly says, yes, you'll support mining, but also try to increase investment in other forms of economic development in the NWT too. The last government was trying to do that. There are, of course, only finite resources. Are there any tricks you think the NWT government has been missing in terms of delivering on those?

Again, I'm not the expert in everything. I am a leader. My job as leader is to find the expertise amongst my ministers, amongst my colleagues, amongst the stakeholders.

What I do say is that there are things that we could be doing that may not cost millions of dollars. For example, if we've got 110,000 tourists coming through Yellowknife, maybe we should be working better with our municipal governments and our chamber of commerce to say, "How can we actually keep that money?" I said that in the business forum [during the election campaign] and they said, you know, tourism, we need money, and we're struggling. And I said, "With 110,000 tourists coming through Yellowknife, if every business sold one little gadget and sold it for a dollar, that's $110,000 for your business."

So it's a matter of promoting the industry. It's a matter of working with the business community and the municipal communities and Indigenous communities to actually figure out, what are our strengths here? What economic opportunities do we have in the Northwest Territories? And how do we capitalize on that?

You'll soon be heading to the national table for the first time and sitting down with other potential and territorial premiers, sitting down with federal ministers, sitting down with the prime minister. What kind of voice are you intending to have? How will you speak for the Northwest Territories in those meetings?

Well, I hope the tone of my voice… I hope my voice won't change. I still plan on talking like I talk. What I am, though is… I will be the voice for the North but I also realize that the North is one part of Canada. We are not separate, we're all together. So what I'm hoping to bring there is the focus that by strengthening the North we strengthen all of Canada.

Caroline Cochrane and Michael McLeod

Caroline Cochrane and Liberal MP Michael McLeod at a funding announcement. McLeod was returned to office as the NWT's MP in the same week that Cochrane took over the premiership from his brother, Bob. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

When I talk about being progressive and making sure everybody gets an equal piece of the pie, I will bring that forward as well. It's not all about us. It's how do we all work together to meet the needs of Canada as a nation.

When I asked the last premier, Bob McLeod, about his letter that he co-signed with several conservative premiers to the prime minister earlier this summer, he said, well, sometimes you have to make those alliances to get what the Northwest Territories needs. Is that an approach you'll take as well?

That is the beauty of consensus government. I believe, as a consensus government, we need to build relationships with all government parties, whoever's in power. What I will do, though, is I will be looking at the relationships with all. I don't see myself actually supporting one party or the other. I do not believe the intent was there to promote, but we learn from things and going forward, like I said, consensus government means we have to listen to everyone.

There's some apprehension I think in the NWT, and I think there's a lot of excitement as well among many residents, about the new government that has been installed, How do you approach that? Is there a concern that you may let some people down because governing is never as simple as that? How will you approach trying to meet expectations that are very high now for the next four years?

You will never please everyone in life. That was one of the first lessons I learned coming up from the non-profit world, where I was a social worker. Most people really sincerely cared about me and appreciated me. The only big fight I had was, in all honesty, the Government of the Northwest Territories. I very quickly learned, coming into politics, that no matter what decision you make, half the people will think it's great and half the people will think it's not great.

The role of a leader is not to worry about our own, how we feel about that. The role of the leader is to make the best decisions for the people based on as much information as you have. So I have to put aside my personal feelings, the feelings of others, by hearing the voices of the people and making the decisions based on what is best for the people.

What I think I'm hearing in there is that you won't be afraid to make unpopular decisions if you think that's what's best.

Over the last four years, I think I have made unpopular decisions. I've made decisions that I have said will affect me politically. But as a leader, my responsibility was to make the decision what I felt were the best needs at the time for the people, and risk my position as a leader in doing that. And I did that in the last assembly. I don't see that changing.

You've promised us the most progressive government the Northwest Territories has seen. What does that mean?

Progressive means a lot to different people. Some people think it's really "everything goes to the people," some people think it's not. I don't see progressive as that. I think we need to look at the way we term that. I use it all the time. Progressive, for me, means that you don't put all of your eggs in one basket.

My mother's philosophy was, if you have eight children, you don't say – because it's important that we have this one focus – that one child gets all of the food. What it says is that everyone gets an equal piece, a bowl of stew. And when everyone's had their fill of stew, and there's more left in the pot, then we look at that within a people focus – what's the best needs of the people – and then we find where it goes.

I don't use it in the way the theory says that progressive means you're on the left, you know, conservative means you're on the right. That's not how I use it. I mean progressive government in that we will move forward in a different direction based on the needs of the people, not based on the needs of the people in power.

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