Premier Caroline Cochrane on Thursday released the mandate letters for the seven ministers in the legislative assembly, including for Cochrane herself.
The 2019-2023 mandate reflects the 22 priorities set by all members of the current assembly, based on what members heard from constituents.
The Premier highlighted that a “productive partnership” between Indigenous governments and the GNWT is fundamental to the success of the mandate and the future prosperity of the territory in a boilerplate preamble to each member of her executive council.
“The decisions we make as cabinet should always reflect our commitment to reconciliation and the affirmation and advancement of Indigenous rights and self-determination,” the statement reads.
During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Cochrane said support is still needed for NWT residents and businesses as they face potential future waves of the virus and work toward social and economic recovery.
Systemic racism is a concern for the NWT that hinders its ability to fully embrace the territory’s diversity and advance collective priorities.
“It is critical to address the ongoing legacies of colonialism and the devastating impacts it has had on Indigenous people’s culture, language, education and health,” the Premier stated.
In a phone interview with NNSL Media, Cochrane spoke generally about some of the goals raised in the mandate letters.
Regarding her own objectives as minister of Executive and Indigenous Affairs, the first item listed is concluding agreements with Indigenous government partners.
“Two that we’re working on right now, and are at the final stages, are the Athabasca Dënesuliné and Ghotelnene K’odtineh Dene self-government agreements,” Cochrane said. “Those are two agreements that we have been really close to (and) quite a few others. We are working on all of them, although we’re being respectful at the same time that these are their land claims, their self-government claims. And so it’s not about us pushing our priorities on them. It’s being respectful of the process.”
Her mandate also sets out that she will lead efforts to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to achieve reconciliation inside Canada’s constitutional framework.
“The NWT is more or less ahead in that aspect,” she said. “We have been working on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (and Girls) and reconciliation. However, one thing that’s really important in UNDRIP is that it’s not appropriate for us to really define what that is. It’s about Indigenous people having their voices.
“We are going to be pulling together the Indigenous governments to help us define what this will look like and what actions we need to take to implement that. We’re just beginning (that work) at this point.”
Health and Social Services mandate
Julie Green, minister of Health and Social Services, has been directed to increase the number of resident health care professionals in the NWT by at least 20 per cent.
Cochrane acknowledged that the GNWT has to make the territory stand out for prospective professionals in the medical field.
“The NWT is a jewel, in that we’re smaller, we have the personal relationships (and) you know your neighbour. Those are things we have to sell to people, not only the financial commitment, it’s the quality of living that we offer here as well.”
Mandate on homelessness
The mandate of Paulie Chinna, whose responsibilities as minister cover Municipal and Community Affairs, Youth, the NWT Housing Corporation, Public Utilities Board, and Homelessness, states that she is expected to advocate for “Northern solutions to homelessness.”
Cochrane said eliminating homelessness entirely within this term of this territorial government is unlikely.
“However, what I can say is that Covid-19 brought this to the forefront, and that the need to make sure the most vulnerable populations (have access to) shelters became a priority with this government. With the initial actions that we’ve done with Covid-19, we’ve managed to find shelters. We still have issues with that.
“We’ve been bringing that (up) as a major priority. Even before Covid-19, homelessness was an issue for the NWT. Every time I speak to the federal government, I talk about the need for housing in the NWT.”
Mandate on education
R.J. Simpson, minister of Education, Culture and Employment and now minister of Justice, is mandated to advance universal childcare by increasing the availability and reducing the cost of childcare in the communities.
“Covid meant that we had to give a little bit of extra funding to the childcare centres that are in operation right now to make sure that they’re sustainable,” Cochrane said. “I think we need to take a full inventory of what we have. A lot of people think that when we talk (about) childcare that every single community has to have childcare facilities. That might not necessarily be true. It’s a matter of finding out (who is in) a small community. It might only have one or two children, and it might be totally acceptable for a grandmother or other community members to do (childcare).
Simpson’s mandate also calls for raising educational outcomes to the same level as the rest of Canada by working with Indigenous governments and communities to address the impediments to student success.
The state of education in the NWT was brought to the forefront in February, when the federal Auditor General (AG) released a scathing assessment of the NWT’s education system. The AG report found that graduation rates for Indigenous students are below 50 per cent in Yellowknife and regional centres and less than 40 per cent in smaller communities.
RELATED REPORTING: GNWT over-reported graduation rates: AG report
Cochrane said Indigenous governments are very active in that area and that Simpson has indicated that he wants to work more closely with them going forward.
“I think that Minister Simpson has a great job with engaging Indigenous governments to define what our education system should look like,” she said.
Mandate on Industry, Tourism and Investment
Caroline Wawzonek’s goals as Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment call for increasing economic diversification by supporting growth in non-extractive sectors.
The way the current government has handled the role of mining in the NWT economy has, at times, rankled members of the mining industry, who pointed out in May that mining should be given due credit as it accounts for more than one-third of the territory’s GDP.
The Premier agreed that mining occupies a huge part of the territorial economy, but added “if you put all your eggs in one basket, that’s not the best way of doing business.”
“We also have small businesses, so we can’t forget that our job as the GNWT is we have to make sure we take care of the needs of all residents and our businesses. We need to make sure that we do our jobs with that.”
The 19th Legislative Assembly is the third assembly to post its mandate letters publicly. MLAs and ministers are scheduled to return to the legislative assembly on Oct. 15.