More than half of the people in the Northwest Territories now have an evacuation story — how they got out, what they took with them, where they went.
As premier, Caroline Cochrane’s evacuation story was always going to be different, but it was ultimately so unusual that it made national news.
The morning after Yellowknife’s evacuation was ordered, Cochrane said, she recruited a man who is homeless in the city, and the two of them drove all over town, searching for people who were still on the streets.
“From eight in the morning until after midnight, the whole day … we drove through Yellowknife over and over, to every single place, trying to find people,” she told reporters at a wildfire briefing the next day.
“We were going into places that I normally wouldn’t go — behind buildings, into bushes — so I really have to give a shout out to homeless people as well, because without the support of that young man, I’m not sure we would have rounded up as many as possible.”
The pair found nine people, she said, and brought them to where they could get on a plane out of town.
While Cochrane’s government would later be pilloried for scattering the city’s homeless population across western Canada with no support and no firm plan for how to bring them home, one of her supporters says her actions on that Thursday exemplify her commitment to people on society’s margins.
“There’s no other leader in Canada that would have done it,” said Arlene Hache of Cochrane’s Aug. 17 drive around the city. “So that is 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 everywhere she went, and straight up into the Legislative Assembly.
“Caroline has an incredibly strong ethic coming from that lived experience,” she said. “So her heart is always with the people, always with Northern people.”
Cochrane, who is Métis, experienced homelessness herself as a teenager and spent more than two decades in social work before entering politics. When she was elected leader of the N.W.T. government in October of 2019, she was the only woman premier in Canada, and the second female premier of the N.W.T., after Nellie Cournoyea.
But after two terms in office — including one at the helm — Cochrane, who represents Yellowknife’s Range Lake riding, announced in the legislature on Sept. 28 that she will not seek re-election.
“I don’t know what I will do next,” she said, “but my passion for public service continues.”
Cochrane didn’t make herself available for an interview for this story, but CBC spoke with more than half a dozen N.W.T. leaders, activists and political observers about her tenure as premier.
Several held her up as an advocate for marginalized people and Indigenous rights. Some wish she’d acted more decisively during this summer’s wildfire emergencies, and in talks about land and resource management. A number said that despite her best efforts to make substantial changes, Cochrane was often hemmed in by cabinet and an immovable bureaucracy.
‘She did try to change this government’
“I’ve known premier Caroline Cochrane for some time and she did try to change this government. She really did,” said Chief April Martel of 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 with how the premier handled the wildfire emergency in the South Slave region.
The KFN reserve, and the neighbouring town of Hay River, were evacuated twice because of wildfires this season, and the reserve was badly damaged by forest fires this spring. In August, wildfires knocked out telecommunications in the South Slave and forced the evacuation of Fort Smith, Kakisa and Enterprise, which was razed to the ground.
Martel questioned why the territory didn’t declare a state of emergency until wildfires threatened Yellowknife.
“That night KFN got evacuated, [Cochrane] phoned my phone, I was on the highway and I’m like, ‘Premier Caroline Cochrane you should call a state of emergency.’ I’m like, ‘it’s urgent, you need to do that.’ And I even told Minister Shane Thompson, ‘Why are you guys not calling a state of emergency? We’re evacuating,’… And yeah, there was nothing,” said Martel.
“People’s lives would have got lost. Like that fire jumped the road. People were driving through the fire.”
‘We worked many hours, we worked late at night’
But when it came to responding to the COVID-19 public health crisis, the premier did defer — to the chief public health officer.
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 throughout the pandemic.
“Over the two years we worked many hours, we worked late at night. We got a good understanding of each other,” said Kandola.
“I was really fortunate to have this level of leadership and collaboration. I didn’t see it across all of Canada.”
Though they faced backlash from the public and the media, Kandola maintained that she and the premier hardly ever disagreed with each other.
Kandola was especially grateful to Cochrane for setting up the multimillion-dollar COVID Secretariat, a government department dedicated to the territory’s pandemic response.
Kandola said that when she had things to say, the premier listened and treated her with humanity and compassion.
“This is how I remember not only her leadership style, but her personal style,” she said.
Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations, agreed that Cochrane was approachable, but said that when it came to matters of interest to the Dehcho people — land management and the sharing of land, for example — she could have been more assertive with her colleagues in the legislature.
“The premier does not 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 more solid, like on some really hardcore issues, things that the communities wanted.”
A term not without controversy
Of course, no premier leaves office without a few controversies and gaffes on their record.
During the pandemic, Cochrane declared on national television that tourists were welcome in the N.W.T., when in fact the borders were closed to almost all non-residents.
And last year, she apologized in the Legislative Assembly after raising a point of order over Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler’s remarks related to systemic racism.
Semmler said that the massive over-representation of Indigenous children in care in the territory was a crisis, and that the problem would garner more attention if the children were non-Indigenous.
Cochrane first called Semmler’s comments “disrespectful” to the MLAs, then later said she had “misinterpreted” them.
Earlier in her term, Cochrane was criticized for firing the president of Aurora College, and voted to oust one of her own ministers from cabinet, Katrina Nokleby, alleging the former Infrastructure and Industry, Tourism and Investment minister yelled at staff and threw “tantrums” in meetings.
In response, Nokleby called herself outspoken and railed against a “toxic culture of secrecy” in cabinet.
Cochrane’s ‘pragmatic perspective’
But Cochrane will leave office with several champions.
Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox is a Yellowknife academic and consultant who focuses on issues of northern and Indigenous governance. She commended the premier for establishing the Council of Leaders, a forum for Indigenous leaders and the N.W.T. government to work on social and economic issues and other shared interests.
The council was key in developing legislation for implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the territory, which MLAs passed this week.
“This has been something that people have been talking about since 2008. She was the first [N.W.T.] premier to actually get it done,” said Irlbacher-Fox.
For around 20 years prior to Cochrane, “we had these governments that really towed this ideological line that Indigenous governments shouldn’t have power, they shouldn’t have resources, because all of that should sit with the GNWT,” said Irlbacher-Fox.
“This premier looked at that and from just a pragmatic perspective and was like, economically it’s better if we welcome Indigenous governments as equal partners, it’s just better for everybody.”
Bree Denning was supervised by Cochrane at the Yellowknife Women’s Society, when Denning was doing her masters of social work. She too referred to the premier’s pragmatism.
Denning said Cochrane would listen to anyone who came to her needing help or advice, but she would “expect as much from you as you do from her, in terms of what she believes you’re capable of.”
Chief Martel of Kátł’odeeche First Nation said Cochrane wasn’t like other premiers.
“I always tease her because she stays in like a little trailer, right? And I’m like, ‘premiers usually stay in big, big fancy houses,’ and she’ll be like, ‘oh, no, not me,'” she said with a laugh.
“You know, she was just that kind of woman that just lived a normal life. She had all this power, but she didn’t use it to take advantage of things.”