Hay River’s R.J. Simpson elected to cabinet

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For the second Legislative Assembly in a row, Hay River will be represented in the territorial cabinet.

Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson was elected to cabinet by other MLAs on Oct. 24 and sworn in the next day along with the new premier – Yellowknife’s Caroline Cochrane – and five other cabinet ministers.

“I look forward to being in a position to make some real change and do some positive things for the entire territory, as well as Hay River,” Simpson told The Hub on Oct. 25.

The new minister said that he enjoyed being a regular member and being able to speak for his constituents in the Legislative Assembly.

Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson, right, is congratulated by NWT Commissioner Margaret Thom after he was sworn in as a member of the territorial cabinet on Oct. 25 at a ceremony in Yellowknife.
Photo courtesy of Beatrice Lepine

“I’m still the MLA for Hay River North and I’m still my constituents’ only voice in the legislature,” he said. “I won’t be able to stand up publicly in the house and talk for those issues. But I’m still going to discuss those issues with the other members and, if there is an issue that I need to talk to other ministers about regarding Hay River, I’m going to do that.”

Simpson and the other new cabinet members – all with no previous experience in cabinet, except for Cochrane – will be named to their portfolios by the new premier at a later date.

“I think we’re going to have to sit down and have conversations amongst ourselves and with the premier about what portfolios we would want and what we might be suited for, and she’ll make her decision from there,” said Simpson.

The Hay River North MLA did not express a preference for which cabinet post he would like to receive.

“There’s a lot of portfolios I’d like, because there’s a lot of things that need to be changed all across government,” he said.

Simpson sounded pleased with the makeup of the new cabinet.

“I think we have a lot of good people in cabinet and I think we have a very strong regular member side, as well,” he said.

The other members of cabinet are Sahtu MLA Paulie Chinna, Inuvik Boot Lake MLA Diane Thom, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby and Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek.

In a major change from the previous government in which only one cabinet minister was female, the new government will have a female premier and four female cabinet ministers.

The selection of the new cabinet followed the established practice of regional balance – two MLAs from northern constituencies, two from southern constituencies and two from Yellowknife.

Before being elected to cabinet, Simpson unsuccessfully ran against three other MLAs to become premier.

“You always want to accomplish what you set out to accomplish,” he said. “So in that sense it was disappointing. But I’m not disappointed with our premier. And I think that whoever became premier I would have been able to work with very well.”

Simpson said he is not sure if his bid for the premiership was impacted by the controversy that emerged after the territorial election over the financial difficulties of his father, Rocky Simpson, the new MLA for Hay River South.

“Nobody brought that up to me, so I can’t say,” said R.J. Simpson.

His father owes about $1.8 million to the NWT Business Development and Investment Corporation.

Cochrane’s selection as premier followed three rounds of voting by MLAs. Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos was dropped after the first round and R.J. Simpson was dropped after the second. Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty lost the final vote to Cochrane.

She is now the only female premier in Canada, and the second in NWT history, following Nellie Cournoyea, who served in the role from 1991 to 1995.

Speaking to reporters about the role of women in the new government, Cochrane said, “We used to be the last. We used to be in the worst place, and now we’re at the top place.”

Cochrane said she was “surprised” that the premiership returned to Yellowknife, but that it was “time for a woman to be at the table.”

In her acceptance speech, the new premier vowed that the new government will be one of the most progressive in recent memory.

“Jobs are part of the answer, but not the only answer,” she said to reporters later. “I’m hopeful we’ll have a more balanced government and we’ll be looking at people, infrastructure, and programs in the same light. It’s about balance.”

Cochrane also promised more resources for education. She was the minister of Education, Culture and Employment for the final two years of the previous government.

Mackenzie Delta MLA Frederick Blake Jr. was acclaimed as the new speaker of the Legislative Assembly.

– with files from Nick Pearce

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