More than half the population of the Northwest Territories now has an evacuation story: how they left, what they took, where they went.
As Prime Minister, Caroline Cochrane’s evacuation story was always going to be different, but in the end it was so unusual that it made National News.
The morning after Yellowknife was ordered evacuated, Cochrane said, he recruited a homeless man in the city, and the two drove around the city, looking for people who were still on the streets.
“From eight in the morning until after midnight, all day… we drove through Yellowknife over and over again, to all the places, trying to find people,” he told reporters at a bushfire briefing. the next day.
“We were going places I wouldn’t normally go (behind buildings, in the bushes), so I really have to give a shout out to the homeless people too, because without the support of that young man, I’m not sure we could have gathered to as many as possible.”
The couple found nine people, he said, and took them to a place where they could catch a plane out of town.
While Cochrane The government would later be ridiculed for dispersing the city’s homeless population across Western Canada With no support and no firm plan on how to bring them home, one of his supporters says his actions that Thursday exemplify his commitment to people on the margins of society.
“There’s no other leader in Canada who would have done it,” Arlene Hache said of Cochrane’s Aug. 17 march through the city. “So that’s Caroline in a nutshell.”
Hache, a social justice advocate who worked with Cochrane in the 2010s at the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said Cochrane maintained her commitment to vulnerable people wherever she went, and right up to the Legislature.
“Caroline has incredibly strong ethics derived from that lived experience,” he said. “So her heart is always with the people, always with the people of the North.”
Cochrane, who is Métis, she herself experienced homelessness as a teenager and spent more than two decades in social work before entering politics. When she was elected leader of the Northwest Territories government in October 2019, she was the only female prime minister in Canada and the second female prime minister of the Northwest Territories, after Nellie Cournoyea.
But after two terms, including one at the helm, Cochrane, who represents Yellowknife’s Range Lake Riders, announced in the legislature on Sept. 28 that he will not seek re-election.
“I don’t know what I’ll do next,” he said, “but my passion for public service continues.”
Cochrane was not available for an interview for this story, but CBC spoke to more than half a dozen NWT leaders, activists and political observers on her tenure as prime minister.
Several presented her as a defender of marginalized people and indigenous rights. Some wish she had acted more decisively during this summer’s wildfire emergencies and in conversations about land and resource management. Several said that despite her best efforts to make substantial changes, Cochrane often found herself surrounded by a cabinet and immovable bureaucracy.
“She tried to change this government”
“I’ve known Prime Minister Caroline Cochrane for some time and she tried to change this government. She really did,” said Chief April Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation (KFN).
Martel praised Cochrane for listening to and advocating for indigenous groups and working to find funding for their initiatives.
But Martel expressed disappointment at the way the Prime Minister handled the bushfire emergency in the South Slave region.
The KFN Reservation and the neighboring town of Hay River were evacuated twice due to wildfires this season, and the reservation was severely damaged by forest fires this spring. In August, wildfires disrupted telecommunications in South Slave and forced the evacuation of Fort Smith, Kakisa and Enterprise, which was razed.
Martel questioned why the territory did not declare a state of emergency until Wildfires threaten Yellowknife.
“That night KFN was evacuated, [Cochrane] I called my phone, I was on the road, and I said, ‘Premier Caroline Cochrane, you should declare a state of emergency.’ I said, “It’s urgent, you have to do it.” And I even said to Minister Shane Thompson: ‘Why don’t you declare a state of emergency? We’re evacuating’… And yeah, there was nothing,” Martel said.
“Lives would have been lost. Like the fire jumped the road. People were driving through the fire.”
‘We worked long hours, we worked late into the night’
But when it came time to respond to the COVID-19 public health crisis, the prime minister deferred to the director of public health.
Dr. Kami Kandola, who instituted sweeping public health restrictions in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, said Cochrane supported her and respected her independence during the pandemic.
“For two years we worked long hours, we worked late into the night. We got along well,” Kandola said.
“I was really fortunate to have this level of leadership and collaboration. I didn’t see it in all of Canada.”
Although they faced public and media backlash, Kandola maintained that she and the prime minister were rarely at odds.
Kandola was especially grateful to Cochrane for creating the multimillion-dollar COVID Secretariata government department dedicated to the territory’s pandemic response.
Kandola said that when she had something to say, the prime minister listened to her and treated her with humanity and compassion.
“That’s how I remember not only his leadership style, but his personal style,” he said.
Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations agreed that Cochrane was approachable, but said that when it came to issues of concern to the Dehcho people (land management and land sharing, for example), she could have been more assertive with her colleagues in the legislature.
“The prime minister doesn’t make the final decision on a lot of these things,” he said. “She could have been a little more forceful with her cabinet. She could have been a little stronger, like on some really difficult issues, things that the communities wanted.”
A term not without controversy
Of course, no prime minister leaves office without some controversies and blunders on his record.
During the pandemic, Cochrane stated on national television that Tourists were welcomed in the Northwest Territories.when in reality the borders were closed to almost all non-residents.
And last year, apologized in the Legislative Assembly after raising a point of order regarding Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler’s comments related to systemic racism.
Semmler said the massive over-representation of Indigenous children in care in the Territory was a crisis and the issue would attract more attention if the children were not Indigenous.
Cochrane first called Semmler’s comments “disrespectful” toward the MLAs, and then said he had “misinterpreted” them.
Early in his tenure, Cochrane was criticized for firing Aurora College presidentand voted to expel one of his own ministers, Katrina Nokleby, from cabinet, alleging that the former Minister for Infrastructure and Industry, Tourism and Investment shouted at staff and threw “tantrums” at meetings.
In response, Nokleby came out as outspoken and criticized a “toxic culture of secrecy” in the cabinet.
Cochrane’s ‘pragmatic perspective’
But Cochrane will leave office with several defenders.
Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox is a Yellowknife-based academic and consultant focusing on Indigenous and northern governance issues. She praised the prime minister for establishing the Leaders Council, a forum for Indigenous leaders and the Northwest Territories government to work on social and economic issues and other shared interests.
The council was key in the development of legislation for the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the territory, which MLAs passed this week.
“This has been something people have been talking about since 2008. She was the first [N.W.T.] prime minister to achieve this,” said Irlbacher-Fox.
For about 20 years before Cochrane, “we had these governments that really followed this ideological line that Indigenous governments shouldn’t have power, they shouldn’t have resources, because all of that should fall to the GNWT,” Irlbacher-Fox said. .
“This prime minister looked at that and from a simply pragmatic perspective and said, economically it’s better if we welcome Indigenous governments as equal partners, it’s just better for everyone.”
Bree Denning was supervised by Cochrane at the Yellowknife Women’s Society when Denning was doing her master’s degree in social work. She also referred to the Prime Minister’s pragmatism.
Denning said Cochrane would listen to anyone who came to her for help or advice, but that she would “expect as much from you as you would from her, in terms of what she believes you are capable of doing.”
Chief Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation said Cochrane was not like other prime ministers.
“I always make fun of her because she stays like in a little caravan, right? And I say, ‘Prime ministers usually stay in big, big, fancy houses,’ and she says, ‘Oh no, I don’t.’ “, he said laughing.
“You know, she was that kind of woman who just lived a normal life. She had all this power, but she didn’t use it to take advantage of things.”