It's official — N.W.T. cabinet is shuffled. Here's what the premier, ministers had to say about it

All of cabinet took questions from media for the first time since many ministers saw their roles change.

New ministers head Health, Justice, Industry, and Infrastructure departments

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, right, speaks to press following the reassignment of roles within her cabinet. Caroline Wawzonek, centre, now heads the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, passing the Finance portfolio to R.J. Simpson, left. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Many of the N.W.T.'s government workers have new bosses Tuesday, as the roles redistributed in the premier's fourth and latest cabinet shuffle became official.

Last week, Premier Caroline Cochrane announced new ministers would head many of the government's largest departments following the bitter ejection of former industry and infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby from cabinet.

Cochrane arrived for the briefing in high spirits, laughing and chatting with colleagues.

"You can't see that I'm smiling, but I'm smiling," said Cochrane, masked, as she approached.

Cochrane said ministers entered a weekend discussion on cabinet roles with the understanding that all portfolios were up for grabs.

"When I went in … I said I'm stripping all your portfolios for the day," she said. "If two or three ministers wanted the same portfolio, then they had to make those tough decisions, and they had to talk it out."

Cochrane said the new cabinet reflects the 'individual strengths, experience, and interests of each minister.' (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Cochrane said the result is a cabinet built to the "individual strengths, experience and interests of each minister."

That's resulted in some major changes.

Caroline Wawzonek, formerly minister of justice and finance, will pass the justice portfolio to Education Minister R.J. Simpson, in exchange for taking on Industry, Tourism and Investment.

Wawzonek told reporters it would allow her to add the perspective of individual business owners in considering the "big picture" economic issues discussed at the Department of Finance.

"I think this is a chance to have a good strong vision of what the economy could be," she said.

Wawzonek said taking on the portfolio of Industry, Tourism, and Investment would allow her to identify both 'big picture' and small scale interventions in the economy. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Wawzonek wasn't the only minister to swap one giant portfolio for another. Diane Thom, formerly health minister, dropped the department and picked up the infrastructure portfolio, one of the government's largest.

Thom takes over the department as its senior leadership is in flux. The deputy minister, Joe Dragon, departed under Nokleby's tenure.

In response to questions, Thom spoke little about challenges or priorities but said she would be briefed this week by her acting deputies.

Green 'best fit' for health

Thom was also muted about handing the health portfolio to Julie Green, cabinet's newest member, acclaimed to replace Nokleby in late August.

"We all agreed that Minister Green is the best fit for this," she said.

Green told reporters she "asked to be health minister," while acknowledging she had little formal education in the field.

Green instead pointed to her experience with the standing committee on social development, which critiques many of the government's health policies.

Thom, the outgoing health minister, said Green was deemed to be the 'best fit' for managing the health portfolio, despite being cabinet's newest member. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"I feel like I have a pretty firm background in that," she said.

But asked how she'd work to change what Nokleby, during her exit, described as a "toxic culture of secrecy" under Cochrane, Green demurred.

"I don't have enough experience on this side of the house to know what, if anything, I'd want to change," she said.

Cabinet like 'parents' to MLAs, public: premier

For her part, Cochrane said those accusations were not "fair," arguing that "being accountable doesn't mean you're transparent all the time."

In an extended analogy, Cochrane compared regular MLAs and the public to children in a family where the parents — a stand-in for cabinet — were deciding what to do about their child's education.

"When the parents are just sitting down talking about that, is that the time you want your child in?" she asked.

Cochrane said parents only tell their children their final decision, not involve them in the discussion.

Similarly in government, she argued, that lack of transparency is necessary "to avoid mass confusion."

"Is it fair that we tell the public every time we have a thought?" she said.

Cochrane also took the opportunity to celebrate her remaining ministers' work, saying they "learned by fire" during the pandemic.

She said even with this latest shuffle, she would no longer rely on her cabinet's relative inexperience as an excuse.

"There's no more excuses," she said.

Housing Minister Paulie Chinna was not present at the press conference.

The assembly reconvenes Oct. 15.


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