Tammy Cook-Searson has served her community for almost a quarter of a century.
But she believes one of her greatest accomplishments is still several months away from completion.
Cook-Searson, the chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan, was one of the driving forces behind getting a wellness, treatment and recovery centre built for her Nation.
The $16.1 million project is currently underway and scheduled to be completed this fall.
Earning praise for her persistence to obtain the funding for the centre, on Monday it was announced Cook-Searson is this year’s recipient for the Indigenous Women in Leadership Award, annually presented by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB).
Cook-Searson will be presented with her award at a virtual ceremony scheduled for May 13.
Though she is the one being singled out, Cook-Searson said plenty of others should also be given credit.
“It takes a whole team effort to make things happen,” she said. “It works better when you have people coming together and working together.”
Lac La Ronge Indian Band is the largest First Nation in Saskatchewan with more than 11,400 members.
About 60 per cent of these members live in the Nation’s six communities of La Ronge, Little Red River, Morin Bay, Sucker River, Grandmother’s Bay and Stanley Mission.
Cook-Searson is in her 16th year and sixth term serving as chief. Prior to that she spent eight years working as a councillor for the First Nation.
“With all of our programs and services, we have 850 employees,” she said of the team surrounding her. “We have that stability of having staff members who have been here for so many years. Some of the employees have been here for 20, 30 and even 40 years.”
Tabatha Bull, CCAB’s president and CEO, is impressed with the work Cook-Searson has done.
“Chief Tammy Cook-Searson’s strength, tenacity, and commitment to her community is an inspiration to us all,” Bull said. “Through relentless determination and hard work, she is bringing to life a vision of economic empowerment for Lac La Ronge that will be felt for generations to come.”
Besides being Lac La Ronge’s chief, Cook-Searson is also the president of Kitsaki Management Ltd., the First Nation’s economic arm.
“We have a diversified portfolio of businesses,” she said.
This list includes a trucking company, a vegetation services business and catering and janitorial businesses.
Kitsaki Management also has insurance, consulting and environmental services businesses.
There are almost 1,000 people working for the group’s various companies.
“We used to have about 1,500 people,” Cook-Searson said. “But that went down because of the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, and because of the pandemic we are in now we had to lay off a lot of staff members.”
Cook-Searson said winning the CCAB award was a bit of a shocker.
“It came as a surprise,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I didn’t even know I was nominated.”
A running colleague, Shannon Loutitt, who lives in Saskatoon, nominated her.
Cook-Searson, 49, is an avid runner and has completed four full marathons and several half marathons, as well as 10-kilometre races.
Cook-Searson has completed all four of her full marathons in Saskatchewan. She is hoping to one day compete in one of the world’s most prestigious events, the Boston Marathon.
She’s also looking forward to the day when the First Nation’s wellness centre will be open.
The facility will include a 24-bed, in-patient component and also serve as an outpatient centre.
Construction began last June and was originally scheduled to be finished by this October.
“I think we have had it pushed back to November now,” she said. “So it’s not that far behind.”
Cook-Searson admits there were times she wondered whether the centre would become a reality.
“It was a big ambition and goal that we set out to have as a community,” she said. “There were times we ran into challenges and we didn’t know whether this would go through. But we kept on pushing the issue.”
Cook-Searson recalled one of the times she herself was questioning if the centre would become a reality when it appeared federal funding was not forthcoming.
At the time of her doubt she was in British Columbia and running along the Vancouver seawall. During her run she spotted a pair of huge eagle feathers on the ground and decided to pick them up, sensing they were a message from a mentor who had passed away.
Cook-Searson continued her run, carrying an eagle feather in each hand.
Then, on the day word arrived federal funding had been approved and the centre would be built, Cook-Searson was on a camping excursion.
A young boy handed her an eagle feather right after her call about the funding.
“He said ‘This is for you. I found it by the lake and wanted you to have it’,” she said.
By Sam Laskaris, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com