An interview with Caroline Cochrane, Premier of the Northwest Territories

4 minute read

by Rhonda Moore, IOG Practice Lead for Science and Innovation

“You can do this:” A simple message of hope and inspiration for any woman or girl with a desire to run for political office, from Caroline Cochrane, 13th Premier of the Northwest Territories (NWT) and Canada’s only current sitting female premier. Ms. Cochrane was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories as MLA for Range Lake in 2015. She became Premier in October 2019.

Her message is a timely and timeless one, coming just shy of two weeks before The International Day of Women, when I caught the Premier for a quick interview during a break between sessions in the Legislature of the Northwest Territories.

The International Day of Women was first celebrated in New York City in 1909 and has since been adopted in many countries around the world. A time to focus protests on women’s suffrage, for the right to vote, to drive, and for other privileges already allowed our male counterparts, the International Day of Women has been a time to acknowledge the contributions and advances women have made. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge how much work is still to be done before women and men are treated as equals around the world, even in Canada. Indeed, the UN has identified a theme for International Day of Women 2020 that captures much of this history: Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.

The work of the Institute on Governance focuses on how society, or groups within it, organizes to make decisions. With this in mind, my interview with Premier Cochrane (PC) focused on the role of women in political office, and the barriers they continue to face.

RM:Can you comment on what you think are the conditions necessary for women to seek and get elected into public office?

PC: Absolutely. I find that the biggest barrier for women getting elected into any leadership office is their own self. [As women] we have been socialized to be humble, calm, peacekeepers. We can’t be adversarial or a strong voice. If so, we are called horrible names. That has to stop. The other thing that women need – because we are not socialized to take leadership roles – is to learn the tools of how to campaign.

(Findings by Ouellet and Shiab support this statement. In 2019, they reported that women receive less funding from Elections Canada[1] for their campaigns, and less training on campaign tactics from their respective parties.)

RM:What does it feel like to be the only female premier at a time of such division in our country?

PC: I would love to see more women at the table… Women have been socialized to multi-task and to think more holistically. Women should have a place at the [decision-making] table because we think [about more than] the economy. If we bring in a gold mine, we consider: what does that do to our people? What social issues come with that gold mine? What are the benefits? What are the costs? What education do our people need? It’s the way women have thought all along. Our leadership needs this thought process.

RM:We haven’t seen a female premier elected for a second term yet in Canada. Why do you think that is?

PC: There are a number of factors. ‘No second chances’ is alive and well. Women do get judged more quickly. I wasn’t in my position a week and I was already hearing rumours that because there were nine women elected to our assembly that the economy was going to fall apart. The economy was already bad. I heard rumours that I don’t have leadership qualities. I’ve been in leadership for 20 years.

PC: Right now, we have a (gender-) balanced legislative assembly. But the next generation will still need to take up this fight. We have broken the glass ceiling in the Northwest Territories, but we are still cleaning up the shards of glass. Young women need to see women in leadership. It opens the door and says “You can be there as well.”

PC: But if there are no other women running, it doesn’t mean that you do not run. Somehow, women have to get at the table. It takes courageous women to be willing to put ourselves forward.

Research by Grace Lore, a politics and gender lecturer at the University of Victoria, shows that women are set up to fail in politics, because parties are more likely to run a woman in a hard-to-win riding, instead of a party “stronghold”.[2] (“Stronghold” ridings are defined as such when a party has won the two previous, consecutive elections or byelections with a margin of at least 10 percent.) In 2019, only 23 percent of all candidates running in strongholds were women. Or, as another source put it “for every 100 women running, 16 won their races, while for every 100 men running, 29 were elected.” Yet, when women and men are run in safe ridings, their likelihood of winning is the same (Thomas and Bodet, 2013).

The experiences of Premier Cochrane, and the findings above, raise pointed questions about the governance of Canada’s political campaign systems and the implicit bias that exists inside those offices. For those who believe that Canadians deserve policies built by a table of people who reflect the Canadian population, we need to take a closer look at who represents us, and how they get there.



About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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