North·Analysis

N.W.T. cabinet and deputy assignments send mixed message about change

As cabinet ministers got their new portfolios, some longstanding deputies were shown the door.

As cabinet ministers got their new portfolios, some longstanding deputies were shown the door

Premier Caroline Cochrane (third from left) unveils her cabinet appointments Tuesday. Minister of Education, Culture and Employment R.J. Simpson was not present. (Emily Blake/CBC)

There's no question that the N.W.T.'s new premier, Caroline Cochrane, wants to appear as a dynamic agent of change at the top.

Just a few days after announcing her new cabinet's portfolios, Cochrane shuffled the territory's top bureaucrats — deputy ministers that have, at times, been accused of calling the shots.

Two longstanding deputies, Finance's David Stewart and Infrastructure's Paul Guy, were sent packing.

But between her cabinet appointments and her bureaucratic shuffle, Cochrane has sent a confusing message about her priorities.

No change at Health or Housing

Two of the government's most criticized departments are seeing the least change of all.

During the campaign, the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation was the subject of fierce criticism from local leaders from Fort Simpson to Paulatuk.

But corporation President and CEO Tom Williams, a Cochrane appointee from her time as housing minister, has been kept in his role.

Above Williams, Cochrane has appointed Paulie Chinna as minister for housing — a relatively unknown politician who made few statements about housing over the course of her campaign.

It's a similar story at Health and Social Services, where Bruce Cooper retains his job as deputy minister, despite damning back-to-back auditor general's reports into systemic failures in child and family services. 

The mammoth portfolio is one more than a few politicians have said they would hope to avoid — a department where it's easy to be unpopular, and where easy fixes are hard to come by. 

The new health minister, Diane Thom, has no prior experience in the field. But her past career as a negotiator for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) could come in handy.

There's a new federal directive to "hand over" child and family services to Indigenous governments, and communities outside Yellowknife are pushing for more local control.

If Thom puts her negotiating skills to use, she could make her portfolio significantly more manageable.

Disappointments for Simpson, Thompson

Other cabinet ministers will have to cope with clear disappointments.

Shane Thompson, a vocal supporter of one of Cochrane's competitors for premier, was deprived of the portfolio of municipal and community affairs — a role he had publicly expressed interest in.

That went to Chinna, while Thompson got the Department of Lands — despite Cochrane's promise to amalgamate the two departments.

Thompson will also helm Environment and Natural Resources, where he'll need to sell controversial caribou preservation plans up and down the Mackenzie Valley — though his reputation for listening to community leadership could ease his way forward.

Hay River North's R.J. Simpson, now minister of Education, Culture, and Employment, also has a hard sell ahead of him.

Simpson mounted a bid against Cochrane for premier, but will now have to carry her agenda forward.

He's taking charge of a department that Cochrane herself said was "failing our children" after two years at the helm.

He'll have to sell the government's decision on proposals to re-centre Aurora College in Yellowknife — a decision that could prove very unpopular in the South Slave, where the college is currently headquartered.

Yellowknife MLAs control big portfolios

There are at least two ministers who can celebrate this weekend.

Next to Cochrane, Yellowknife South's Caroline Wawzonek will sit atop two of the government's most powerful departments.

The former criminal defence lawyer is in charge of the departments of Justice, where all legislation is finalized, and Finance, where all spending is decided.

She's not the only MLA to get, seemingly, everything they asked for.

Great Slave MLA and engineer Katrina Nokleby is taking over the two gigantic portfolios of Infrastructure and Industry, Tourism, and Investment. She made no bones about her desire to add those to her resume.

Work by those departments, under ousted Hay River South MLA Wally Schumann, was the primary focus of the 18th Assembly. Arguably, they also have the biggest job ahead of them — overseeing promised billion-dollar infrastructure projects, and saving the N.W.T. economy from an inevitable mining decline.

But on infrastructure, at least, Nokleby won't be able to rely on her deputy's expertise in carrying out that mission.

The former associate deputy minister, Sandy Kalgutkar, oversaw aspects of major infrastructure projects like the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link and the new Stanton Hospital over the course of a 29-year career.

But less than seven months after he was put in that role, he's been shuffled to the Department of Finance, while Joe Dragon, a former deputy minister with Environment and Natural Resources with a doctorate in wildlife ecology, has been given the deputy role in Infrastructure.

That's a confusing signal from a premier whose previous statements haven't clarified which of the territory's three big infrastructure projects — the Taltson hydroelectric system, the Slave Geological corridor and the Mackenzie Valley Highway — will be her government's number one priority.

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