When Caroline Cochrane takes her Assembly seat on Friday, she’ll do it as an exception to the rule.
Cochrane is the only female premier in Canada, and the second to hold the position in the Northwest Territories.
And she is the only cabinet minister that survived October’s election. As a politician, she’s often embraced criticism – first as minister of housing, and later on for education – while referencing a radical commitment to honesty.
After three votes that drew an audible reaction from spectators in the public gallery overlooking the chambers as the four-candidate field was whittled down to Cochrane and Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty.
The victory may have been a surprise to the second-term MLA. She hadn’t prepared a speech, instead promising the “most progressive” Assembly in years before meeting with members of the public crowding outside the entrance to the room.
As for personal details, she told Assembly members on Thursday that she had family in Paddle Prairie, which is a Metis settlement in northern Alberta.
In September, Shelly Wiart of the podcast Women Warriors that she moved out of her house at 13 and lived on the street, before eventually pursuing her education and obtaining a degree in social work.
“My life wasn’t easy growing up,” she told reporters Thursday.
Cochrane, 59, is Metis and was first elected as the member for Range Lake in 2015. A social worker by trade, she was the CEO of the Centre for Northern Families. Before that, she worked at the Shuswap Family Resource Centre in Salmon Arm, B.C.
Her early years were spent early years in small business, and working in the finance department Titan Drilling Ltd., which was her father’s mineral exploration company, according to a contemporary Edge North article.
When she launched her first campaign for Range Lake, she pitched herself as a balance as candidate boasting both social issues bonafides and business acumen, saying she balanced Nothern Families’ books from a $300,000 financial hole.
Her past as an advocate eventually led to a adopt a new philosophy of change, which she referenced in an question and answer session with MLAs before her election Thursday.
“For most of my life, I’ve heard the saying you can make changes from the outside in, (and) you can make changes from the inside out.”
“I tried that,” she said. “I spent 20 years working with low income families saying ‘help us, help us, and no one helped us.'”
For more than 20 years leading up to her political career, she said there was never an increase over the $30,000 allocated to help homeless women. Cochrane said bureaucrats she spoke to were also frustrated with the system.
One day, she had an “epiphany”: “Why do we always talk the inside-out and the outside-in? Why don’t we talk about being the top?”
She ran for Range Lake MLA in 2015 and won.
Soon after, she was elected to cabinet, serving in several portfolios. According to her, she left the relative popularity of NGO professionalism, and began to face the realities of elected officialdom.
“I came into a place where half the people loved me, and half the people who didn’t know me, hated me with such passion,” she said on Thursday.
Her titles included: Minister of Public Works and Services, Minister Responsible for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, Minister Responsible for Addressing Homelessness, Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, Minister Responsible for the Workers Safety and Compensation Commission, and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women.
Most recently as education minister, she’s pushed Aurora College’s transition to a polytechnic university and championed distance learning. Toward the end of her tenure in August, she delivered an admission: the department plagued with low test scores and attendance rates was in need of “major reform.”
Also over the past summer she became embroiled in a family’s efforts to educate their child in a French school after blocking the student’s application. The NWT Supreme Court decided this breached the child’s Charter rights, leading the Northwest Territories government to appeal. The judge also ordered Cochrane to reconsider her decision, which she agreed to do.
In September, Cochrane announced she would seek the premiership if elected, and after a tight race against Hughie Graham, she returned as the member for Range Lake with 439 votes to his 421.
She was the only cabinet minister to do so. Cochrane emerged as peculiarity: associated with change and a historic number of women elected to the chamber – she was also one of the few remaining members with clear establishment ties.
On Thursday, she promised the most progressive Assembly in recent memory. She described this policy approach to reporters on Thursday as looking “at people, infrastructure, and programs in the same light. It’s about balance.”