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Caroline Cochrane, Canada’s only female premier, defies labels—and anyone who doubts her



In early 2015, Caroline Cochrane sat at her kitchen table in Yellowknife to read the local newspaper with her partner, Rory, by her side. She was then the CEO of the Centre for Northern Families, a daycare that serves vulnerable women and families in the Northwest Territories’ capital. Keeping up with the latest news was part of her routine.

A public service announcement caught Cochrane’s eye as she flipped through the pages—an advertisement for a so-called “Campaign School for Women.” Its purpose was to provide information and support for novice female candidates looking to enter politics in time for that year’s territorial election.

Five years on, Cochrane reflects on that moment, sitting on a brown leather couch in her office—the office of the premier of the Northwest Territories. Looking back at her life, she says politics was hardly on her radar; there was a time when Cochrane was a high school dropout, not even finishing Grade 9. She was homeless at 13, travelling south to Edmonton with a friend to escape alcoholism and abuse in her family home in Yellowknife. “My life was always trying to run away from the North,” Cochrane says. “Run away from your issues—that’s what people traditionally do.”

Cochrane says she would subsist for a few months in Edmonton, only to run out of money and return. Back in Yellowknife, she would make just enough cash at temporary jobs to leave again. It was a revolving door between the North and away. The friend with whom she’d fled when she was 13 would die of a heroin overdose in Edmonton a few years later, and Cochrane became a single mother of two in her later years after the father of her children became involved with drugs. At the time, she was spending her days bookkeeping and her nights bartending to keep the lights on. It’s a difficult past that she declines to talk about in detail. But she knew she wanted a change.

READ MORE: Northwest Territories election 2019: Full results and district-by-district vote counts

Cochrane, now 59, persevered. She signed up for that campaign school five years ago, and today she is Canada’s only female premier, after Kathleen Wynne in Ontario and Rachel Notley in Alberta both lost to conservative, white, male opponents. Cochrane, who is Métis, also heads the only gender-balanced legislature in Canada, with nine female MLAs out of 19. Her policies have been labelled progressive yet pragmatic, which she credits to her life experience and simply being a woman in politics. “We do think differently,” Cochrane says. “Not better. Just differently.”

All of it—the hardscrabble background, the tempered feminism, the suspicion of political dogma—have made Cochrane a unique figure on the Canadian political landscape. The N.W.T. legislature may be non-partisan, and the territory itself a minor player in national politics, but she has already been identified as a potential ally of Justin Trudeau at a time when six provinces representing more than half the country’s population are governed by conservative parties.

Her favour will not be automatic: Cochrane recently joined other premiers in an initiative led by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to have Ottawa revise the federal fiscal stabilization program. Still, in the tradition of the only other woman to hold her office—the formidable Nellie Cournoyea—Cochrane is a territorial leader capable of punching far above her political weight.

The drive to secure a better future for her children was a catalyst for Cochrane, who, after countless nights spent listening to people’s troubles while she tended bar, figured she could put her attentive ears to use by becoming a social worker. Without a high school diploma, the transition to academia wasn’t easy. Cochrane passed a language proficiency test to be admitted to college, but one major challenge was her limited, street-influenced vocabulary. To expand it, she would jot down words used by her professors at the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, B.C. (now Thompson Rivers University). She would then spend her evenings poring over the dictionary, memorizing the meaning and context. It’s a habit Cochrane carries on to this day.

After getting her degree in 1999, Cochrane found work in the not-for-profit sector in Yellowknife, helping women and families who faced extreme poverty and lacked access to childcare. It was a two-decade career, during which Cochrane noticed with frustration that the funding her organizations received remained stagnant.

“My partner, very supportive, told me, ‘You’re smart enough. I’m tired of you complaining all the time. The election’s coming up. Run,’ ” Cochrane recalls. She never took him seriously—until she came across that fateful newspaper ad. Cochrane decided to enrol in the Campaign School for Women, organized by the Northwest Territories’ Status of Women Council.

Over a frigid weekend in February 2015, in a stuffy basement conference room at a Yellowknife hotel, she joined a dozen other women eager to kickstart their political careers. One of them was Julie Green, current MLA for Yellowknife Centre. “I’ve always joked that we were twins,” Green says of Cochrane—they’re the same age, come from the not-for-profit sector, and were the only two women elected to the N.W.T. assembly later that year.

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More than opening a door, the course helped Cochrane make sense of an unfamiliar world. Many women, she says, aren’t conditioned to ask for what they want, which makes fundraising and door-knocking to rally support from voters difficult.

The course, Cochrane adds, provided necessary training on social media and effective messaging to get her platform across. Still, Green notes, Cochrane’s approach to campaigning was slightly different than the conventional. Instead of focusing on reaching as many people as possible during door-knocking trips, Cochrane would be whisked inside potential voters’ living rooms, spending 30 minutes or more discussing issues they felt were the most pressing. “She wasn’t a big planner,” Green says wryly; but Cochrane’s approach worked: “It didn’t do her any harm, that’s the amazing thing. She got to where she needed to go.”

Cochrane focused on making homelessness a ballot issue in the 2015 election—focusing so intently on the problem that she didn’t expect to win the Yellowknife riding of Range Lake, where she was running against incumbent Daryl Dolynny, a local pharmacist.

But the issue proved resonant. About five per cent of Yellowknife’s population uses the city’s lone shelter, a sobering figure compared to Toronto’s one per cent, or Halifax’s 0.5 per cent. After the ballots were counted on Nov. 23, 2015, Cochrane sat five votes ahead of Dolynny, launching her career in politics. She was happy that homelessness in the territories became a paramount issue because of her campaign. Getting elected, Cochrane adds, was a bonus.

She hit the political ground running, taking the helm of seven cabinet portfolios during her first term, including status of women, housing and education. An even bigger surprise came four years later, after her re-election, when she beat three other candidates in three rounds of secret-ballot votes by her fellow MLAs to win the territory’s top political job.

Cochrane says her Métis background and personal philosophy taught her to always be humble, so she didn’t expect the premiership to be hers until the moment her name was announced. There was not much time for shock, however, as the responsibilities of her new role came into focus. “We will make this next four years the most progressive government in the Northwest Territories,” Cochrane declared on election night.

The composition of the new legislature already reflected her assertion—a historic increase in women over the two who sat in the previous assembly. Eleven out of the 19 MLAs are also fresh faces who share an ambitious agenda to cure the territory’s poor high school graduation rate of 67 per cent, the lowest in Canada; and a growing housing crisis, where 42 per cent of households in the territory are too expensive for residents, overcrowded or in need of repairs.

The territory is a vast landmass sprawling from the Prairies to the Arctic archipelago, but its population is tiny, with about 44,800 residents. By several key measures of social progress—educational attainment and housing being just two—it lags behind the rest of the country. Those problems are amplified in smaller communities outside of Yellowknife, with Indigenous populations reeling from residential school trauma, a shortage of school classrooms and poor access to social services. Economically, the territory relies heavily on mining and tourism, but has struggled to get back on its feet since the global recession of 2008. Its average GDP growth since 2014 is under one per cent per year, less than half that of Canada as a whole.

“I always consider ourselves the poor cousins,” Cochrane says. “If you have problems with housing in the south, come and look at our housing. We’ve got 40-below weather out there. People freeze if they don’t have adequate housing.”

That housing and education fall within Cochrane’s wheelhouse is no surprise—she’s experienced them herself, having called the territory home since she was two. But she’s at pains to voice concern about the economy, including maintaining job growth and continued promotion of the territory’s mining sector. The fear of climate change is not lost on her government, she stresses, but—in a talking point that closely echoes Trudeau’s insistence that climate action and a strong economy go hand in hand—she argues a resource-rich region must capitalize on those assets while the government does its part to tackle the global climate crisis.

Canada's provincial premiers meet in Toronto, Ontario, Canada December 2, 2019. (Carlos Osorio/Retuers)

Canada’s provincial premiers meet in Toronto, Ontario, Canada December 2, 2019. (Carlos Osorio/Retuers)

The N.W.T. may face unique problems, but Cochrane also views the territory as one slice of a 13-piece, Canada-shaped pie. That’s why, at a first ministers’ meeting in December, she signed the letter from Canada’s premiers following the Trudeau government’s narrow re-election in October, asking Ottawa to reassess fiscal stabilization, which provides financial assistance to provinces during economic downturns. The issue has been a thorn in the side of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador, who say they’ve paid more than their fair share in equalization, and are now struggling through tough economic times.

Though her territory doesn’t receive stabilization funding, Cochrane signed on anyway. “If I want the premiers to support my needs, I need to support theirs as well,” Cochrane tells Maclean’s. “As long as it doesn’t jeopardize our territory or my ethics and it’s not illegal, then why would I not support you in making sure that you prosper as well?”

Her priority for now, Cochrane says, is ensuring Trudeau moves forward with the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework his government released prior to the 2019 federal election. Its lofty goals include ending poverty, eradicating hunger and eliminating homelessness in the North by focusing on health care funding, infrastructure and economic development. Critics have slammed the framework, however, for its vagueness on how exactly to address these issues.

Cochrane also wants to work collaboratively with the 12 other premiers and facilitate harmony within the federation. There is a lot to agree on, she maintains, despite her differences with much of the group, with their mostly privileged backgrounds and policy goals. “Every premier that I heard is worried about the economy,” she says. “All of us are worried about housing, all of us are worried about childcare. The innate concerns of people go across parties.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The N.W.T. premier has a sweeping vision for Canada’s North. Is he dreaming?

Cochrane figures the instinct to seek common ground comes from her background as one of eight children in a 10-person household. Everyone at the dinner table was given an equal serving for dinner before receiving any seconds, she recalls—a simple philosophy she applies to public policy. “I need my bowl of soup to be able to stay alive, but you need your bowl of soup, as well. So let’s all work together and make sure that all of us come out at the end of the meal with a full belly.”

Still, many of her battles will be lonely ones, as her status as the only woman at a table of 13 premiers demonstrated in December. “Society is a lot more lenient toward male politicians,” she says in her office, four months into her mandate. “Any woman who’s elected has a microscope on them … People will be coming out from whichever way they can to try to make us fail.”

Later that afternoon, Cochrane stands in the legislature during question period and defends her government’s authority to dismiss the president of Aurora College, Tom Weegar, in the midst of its transition to becoming the territory’s first polytechnic university. Weegar had been hired to lead the transition while Cochrane was education minister, but only worked for 10 months before he was terminated without cause, according to local media. For several minutes, Cochrane tells her fellow MLAs that terminating Weegar’s employment is in her “sole purview” as premier, without providing rationale or justification for the move.

It is the first substantive controversy of her term, made more complicated by her insistence that personnel issues not be aired in the assembly, or in public. Weegar has since spoken out, saying his termination felt like “sabotage” and came “out of the blue.” He has lost confidence in the premier, he said.

Whatever Cochrane’s reasons, and however muddied the issue has grown by her unwillingness to explain, she hasn’t swayed from her stance—or from her ambitious agenda to lift the N.W.T. out of struggles that for decades have plagued much of Canada’s North. It won’t be easy. But Cochrane says she gathers strength from many women behind her—her staff, her fellow MLAs and the women in the territory’s streets and grocery stores.

Together, they serve as a kind of lodestar. Back when Cochrane was status of women minister, she expanded the Campaign School for Women program beyond territorial to municipal politics. It has been going strong ever since, producing six out of the nine current female MLAs. As premier, she’s no less determined to keep women flowing into politics—which means applying no small amount of pressure on herself. “When I was elected as premier, it said to all women throughout the Northwest Territories that you too can be here,” Cochrane says. “It put a lot of responsibility on me, because it meant that I cannot fail.”

This article appears in print in the April 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Blazing a trail in familiar territory.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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Thanksgiving, large gatherings to blame for surge in COVID-19 cases in Ontario, officials say




As Ontario saw record numbers of daily COVID-19 cases over the weekend, health officials on Monday are putting some of the blame on large gatherings that may have taken place over Thanksgiving two weeks ago. 

In York Region, 16 people, including three infants, are believed to have contracted the novel coronavirus following a Thanksgiving gathering. 

Three families gathered at a home in Vaughan over a span of two weeks around the Thanksgiving weekend.

At least one person attended despite having mild symptoms. 

One family member then went to work while symptomatic and infected two additional individuals. 

“Every time we socialize with anyone beyond our immediate household, there’s a risk that we enter into,” said Dr. Karim Kurji, York Region’s medical officer of health. 

“This particular cluster illustrates that sort of a risk.”

In the province’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Health Minister Christine Elliott pointed at Thanksgiving gatherings as one of the factors for the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. 

“We are also starting to see some of the numbers go down in some of the modified areas but because of the impacts of Thanksgiving, we’re not seeing that happening quite as quickly as we’d like to,” Elliott said.

Weddings, religious service exempt from provincial gathering limits

This past weekend, nearly 100 people, many without masks, congregated outside a Toronto church for a wedding on Saturday. 

A woman, whose identity CBC News agreed to protect because she fears repercussions from the community, was passing by when she saw the gathering and spoke out.

“It was wrong,” said the woman.

“It was going against everything we’re being asked to do right now and it gives the impression that what they’re doing matters more than keeping the rest of the people safe,” she said. 

Ontario has restricted gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors in areas that are in Stage 2 — Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa.

But religious services, like weddings — even in hotspots like Toronto — are exempt, as long as the venue is at less than 30 per cent capacity. 

In a briefing Monday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the rules may need to be changed.

“I think we have to take another look at those regulations,” he said. 

“Any large gathering, no matter how careful you are, has a certain risk associated with it.”

PC MPP under fire for maskless photo at indoor gathering

Meanwhile, a Progressive Conservative MPP is under fire for not wearing a mask while posing for a group photo.

Sam Oosterhoff posted the picture on social media over the weekend but later deleted it. 

“I think it was shocking,” said Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca on Monday. 

“I think it was inappropriate and I think there definitely needs to be consequences for Mr. Oosterhoff.”

Oosterhoff, who is also the parliamentary assistant to the education minister, apologized for the picture, saying he should have worn a mask when taking the photo, given the proximity of the people around him.

Critics have called for his resignation, saying he was not following his government’s pandemic guidance. 

In the province’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Premier Doug Ford said that’s not going to happen. 

“Hey guys, everyone makes mistakes,” said Ford. 

“I have 100 per cent confidence in Sam. He does a great job representing his area. People love him out there and he came out and apologized.”

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‘A community champion,’ philanthropist and former Ticats owner, David Braley dies at 79




Hamilton is mourning the loss of David Braley, a former owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with three decades of success in the Canadian Football League, a supporter of sport in the city, and an honoured philanthropist. 

Braley, who had owned the BC Lions since 1997, passed away in his Burlington, Ont. home at age 79, says a media release from the team.  

In a tweet, Mayor of Hamilton Fred Eisenberger called Braley a “community champion.”

“David Braley’s contributions live on and continue to make our city a better place,” he wrote. “His passion for community, arts & sport was immeasurable.”

He also journeyed into politics, when former Prime Minster Stephen Harper appointed Braley to the Canadian Senate in 2010, where he served for nearly three years. 

He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2019 “for his contributions to the Canadian Football League, and for his entrepreneurial and philanthropic leadership in his community.” 

His philanthropy was remembered in a tweet Monday from Hamilton Health Sciences which said “We are profoundly saddened by the passing of David Braley. He was a champion for the people of Hamilton and contributed so much to improving medical education and research to the benefit of the global community.”

In a media release Bob Young, caretaker of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, said “I and the Tiger-Cats mourn David’s passing. He was an enthusiastic Hamiltonian and a wonderful benefactor to our community’s hospitals and universities. The CFL and Hamilton communities have lost a great leader and champion today.”

The first team Braley owned in the Canadian Football League (CFL) was the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 1989 to 1992, when it returned to community ownership.

During his first season of ownership, the Ticats went to the Grey Cup.

“While David was well known for his role with the BC Lions, he was also always, at heart, a Ticat fan. Our sincerest condolences go out to David’s family, and his wide circle of friends and admirers across our community,” said Young. 

Braley went on to collect four Grey Cups during his time as an owner in the CFL. Three of them were with the BC Lions, and his last was with the Toronto Argonauts, which he owned from 2010 to 2015.

The Argonauts won the 100th Grey Cup in 2012. 

He also acted as chairman of the CFL’s Board of Governors and served as an interim commissioner from March to November in 2002. 

Braley was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (2012), McMaster Sports Hall of Fame (2007) and Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame (2006).

Tributes to man whose name adorns buildings across the city are being posted on social media. 

Along with contributions to football, Braley championed sport in Hamilton by helping to bring the World Cycling Championships to the city in 2012. 

He was also part of southern Ontario’s successful bid for the 2015 Pan Am Games, which saw Tim Hortons Field host all 32 soccer matches. 

“David Braley…was our champion in every sense of the word,” said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie in a statement. 

“David didn’t just talk about this idea. He lived it. An owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, as well as the Argos and Lions, he often stepped in to sustain and turn around franchises when they needed him the most.”

Braley was born in Montreal in 1941, but moved to Hamilton two years later. The Ticats say he discovered his true passion for football after attending his first Tiger-Cats game at Ivor Wynne Stadium. 

He played high school football at Westdale Secondary School, studied sciences at McMaster University, and worked with General Motors Acceptance Corporation in Hamilton and then with London Life Insurance.

In 1969, he purchased William Orlick Industries, which is now known as Orlick Industries, and transformed it into a leading manufacture of aluminum die-cast auto parts that provided hundreds of jobs in the Hamilton area. 

Braley has donated over $125 million to various organizations, says the Ticats media release. 

From August 2006 to June 2007, he donated $50 million to McMaster’s medical school and another $5 million for the university’s athletic centre, which is named after him. 

Braley also gave $10 million to Hamilton Health Sciences for a new cardiac, vascular and research institute, also named after the philanthropist, and $5 million to St. Joseph’s Healthcare for operating rooms and kidney care. 

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Andrew Wilkinson resigning as B.C. Liberal leader after worst party showing in decades




Andrew Wilkinson has resigned as leader of the B.C. Liberal Party, two days after the party had its worst provincial election outcome in decades.  

Wilkinson announced his resignation in a very brief address to the media on Monday. He said he has asked the party’s president to begin the work to find his successor and that he will step down when his replacement is found.

“Leading the B.C. Liberals has been a great honour, but now it’s time for me to make room for someone else to take over this role,” he said. 

Wilkinson took no questions from reporters.

Saturday night’s election results saw John Horgan’s B.C. NDP capture a majority of seats, a disastrous outcome for the Liberals that led to the possibility that Wilkinson, who was elected leader in 2018, would lose leadership of his party.

The Liberals face a projected loss of 12 seats in the legislature after voting day. As many as 525,000 mail-in ballots will be counted in the next two weeks. 

The announcement comes after a disastrous outcome for the B.C. Liberals in Saturday’s provincial election. 1:40

The B.C. NDP is projected to take 55 of B.C.’s 87 ridings, compared to 29 for the Liberals and three for the Green Party.

It will be the first majority government for the NDP in British Columbia since 1996, and while the B.C. Liberals will stand as the Official Opposition, it will be with the lowest seat count the party has had since 1991.

Wilkinson, 63, served in several cabinet positions when in government, including minister of justice and advanced education.

Reaction to results

Wilkinson addressed constituents and the media Saturday night. He acknowledged the NDP were “clearly ahead” based on preliminary results, but did not concede, saying the race wasn’t over until the mail-in ballot count.

“We’ll have more to say going forward but for now we all have a responsibility to be patient, to respect the democratic process and to await the final results,” he said before leaving the stage at his campaign headquarters.

But Wilkinson appeared to concede on Sunday evening, saying he phoned Horgan around 5 p.m. PT to offer his congratulations.

“The people of B.C. have spoken,” Wilkinson wrote in a tweet.

Horgan thanked Wilkinson for his dedication to the people of B.C., acknowledging the challenge he faced serving as Opposition leader.

“I’ve done that job, and I’ve often said it is the toughest job in politics,” Horgan said in a statement. “Mr. Wilkinson led the Official Opposition through a very challenging time for our province. He ran a spirited campaign and I wish him the best in the future.”

Wilkinson seemed to have trouble connecting with voters during the campaign.

He made comments about renting being a “wacky time of life” and described domestic violence victims as “people who are in a tough marriage“. 

Wilkinson also did not immediately face the press after sexist comments were made by candidate Jane Thornthwaite during a video conversation he was a part of. 

Who’s next?

Dianne Watts, former Surrey mayor and runner-up in the last B.C. Liberal leadership race, told CBC on Monday she felt Wilkinson’s wait time before addressing the sexist comments likely did not sit well with voters.

When asked if she was up for the task of replacing Wilkinson should the party look for a new leader, Watts laughed.

“Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt,” she said.

Longtime Liberal and Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond’s name has been floated as a possible replacement.

She told CBC’s Daybreak North on Monday it’s a role she is not considering.

“It’s not something I’ve ever aspired to,” she said.

Bond said she’s focused on serving her constituents and is looking forward to being part of a Liberal party that will need to explore what it will take to resonate further with British Columbians. 

“My job is to be part of this team as it asks some really hard questions about did we do, what do we need to do and how do we begin to re-engage with British Columbians in every corner of this province,” Bond said.

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