North·Analysis

A look at the 4 people vying to be the next N.W.T. premier

MLAs looking to be the next premier of the Northwest Territories will be making their pitch Friday to their fellow MLAs. Four members have publicly said they want the job.

Diverse group of 4 has publicly declared interest in job, but that could change at any time

Four MLAs have said they're considering bids for premier: from left to right, Frieda Martselos, Jackson Lafferty, Caroline Cochrane and R.J. Simpson. (CBC)

MLAs looking to be the next premier of the Northwest Territories will be making their pitches Friday to their fellow MLAs.

Four members have publicly said they want the job. That number can increase or decrease as hopefuls get more of a sense of how much support there is for them.

Those hoping to be premier will make their initial pitches Friday morning, then answer a maximum of two questions from each MLA.

The proceedings are open to the public.

MLAs will get a chance to ask one more question each on Oct. 24, before casting secret ballots to determine who will be the next leader of the Northwest Territories government.

MLAs who are not seeking a cabinet position say their decision will be based on how the priorities of each candidate align with the priorities of their constituents. Those who are seeking a cabinet position will have to consider which of the candidates for premier will offer them the best chance of getting that.

Here's a look at the experiences and backgrounds of those who have publicly declared their intentions to run for premier:

Caroline Cochrane

Caroline Cochrane is the only candidate who served on cabinet in the 18th Legislative Assembly. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Caroline Cochrane is the only candidate who served on cabinet in the 18th Legislative Assembly, which was also her first term in government. The MLA for Yellowknife Range Lake comes from a social services background. Prior to entering politics, she spent decades in social services, most recently running the Centre for Northern Families.

In the last assembly, she was one of the ministers affected by a portfolio shuffle by then-premier Bob McLeod just over halfway through the term. The big switch for Cochrane was going from being the minister responsible for the N.W.T. Housing Corporation to becoming the minister of Education, Culture and Employment.

Cochrane distinguished herself from other ministers by not reflexively defending her departments against all criticism, whether justified or not.

During debate of the last operational budget, Cochrane offered a blunt assessment of the education system she was then overseeing — "We're failing our children, our graduation rates are low, our early developmental index is coming in low. It's not OK," she said.

As a candidate for premier, Cochrane has her work cut out for her. Yellowknife MLA Bob McLeod has been premier for the last two terms of government. Getting MLAs from outside the capital city to vote in a Yellowknife MLA as premier for a third term could be a tough job.

Jackson Lafferty

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty at the groundbreaking ceremony for a Tlicho all-season road in Whati, N.W.T., on Aug. 24. Lafferty is the longest-serving MLA to have announced his candidacy for premier. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty is the longest-serving member to have announced his intent to seek the premier's job, having first been elected in a byelection in 2005. He held his seat against challengers in the next two elections, but was acclaimed in 2015 and again this year.

Lafferty was on cabinet for two terms, from 2007 to 2015, before running unopposed to be Speaker at the start of the 18th Assembly, a move some saw as a demotion.

He oversaw the Department of Education, Culture and Employment during his two terms in cabinet. During that period, school attendance actually dropped slightly across the board — in small communities, regional centres and in Yellowknife — according to departmental statistics.

During the same period, there was a slight improvement in Alberta Achievement Test results for Grade 6 and 9 students in English language arts and math. Those are the only two grades and fields of study tested.

Lafferty has been the most active candidate for premier so far. With former MLA Daryl Dolynny accompanying him, he made the rounds in Yellowknife on election night to congratulate the winners. He has also been approaching MLAs in the legislature during the orientation period. 

Frieda Martselos

A sign for Frieda Martselos is pictured in Fort Smith, N.W.T., during the territorial election campaign in September. (Mario Di Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Earlier this week, Frieda Martselos said, like many other first-time MLAs, she's been focusing on getting to know her colleagues rather than lobbying for their votes in the race for premier.

Though entering her first term, the Thebacha MLA is no rookie to politics. She is a veteran of the rough and tumble — and sometimes litigious — world of Salt River First Nation politics.

Martselos left her position as chief of Salt River First Nation in August to run for MLA. Her 12-year-run as chief was fraught with opposition from her own council and the general divisiveness that has marked Salt River politics for decades.

A group of councillors and band members opposed to Martselos as chief repeatedly voted down the band budget. Last December, the band council barred Martselos from the band-owned gas bar and Tim Hortons. Martselos said it was a reaction to concerns she had raised about invoices for the gas bar.

Martselos has said she brings business smarts to the role of premier, and she is one of the MLAs who feel the next premier should not be from Yellowknife. She told CBC News the premier of the 19th Assembly should be from south of Great Slave Lake if consensus government was to have any meaning.

R.J. Simpson

Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson's effective public speaking may be one of the reasons he, like Jackson Lafferty, was acclaimed this fall. (Submitted)

R.J. Simpson is the son half of the first father-son duo to serve together in the Northwest Territories legislature. His father, Rocky Simpson, was elected in an upset victory over former cabinet minister Wally Schumann.

Like his father, R.J. Simpson is a graduate of law school, though not licensed to practice in the N.W.T., according to the Northwest Territories Law Society. As a regular MLA, Simpson was one of the most flamboyant speakers in the 18th Legislative Assembly. His effective public speaking may be one of the reasons he, like Lafferty, was acclaimed.

Simpson's bid for premier has been indirectly marred by news that his father is deeply in debt to the Northwest Territories Business Development and Investment Corporation and others, something that did not come out until after the election. Rocky Simpson has said he will not be asking for his debt to BDIC of almost $2 million to be forgiven.

BDIC is currently taking legal action against Rocky Simpson, his partner and his business to seize assets, including homes, buildings, equipment and other property that was put up as security for the loan.

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