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Dr. Catherine Cook speaks at her retirement celebration.

Dr. Catherine Cook, a tireless advocate for Indigenous health, education and achievement, speaks at her retirement celebration.

Dr. Catherine Cook celebrated as trailblazer, mentor at retirement event

March 27, 2024 — 

Dr. Catherine Cook, a Métis physician, Rady vice-dean (Indigenous health) and UM vice-president who championed Indigenous equity, was honoured at her Rady Faculty retirement celebration as a true trailblazer.

“Dr. Cook has broken down barriers, attained many ‘firsts’ as an Indigenous leader, and been a powerful voice in opposition to racism and colonialism,” said Dr. Peter Nickerson, vice-provost (health sciences) and dean of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences

“She has courageously called out injustice and done the difficult work of dismantling systems that have mistreated and excluded Indigenous people. She has inspired and mentored countless students and colleagues…. She has truly made a difference.”

Members of the Indigenous, university and health-care communities gathered on March 21 for the celebration in the John Buhler Research Centre Atrium. Speakers paid tribute to Cook’s more than 35 years of advocacy for Indigenous health, education and achievement.

Cook speaks in a quiet voice, Nickerson said, but it’s a voice of determination and impact. “She just tells it like it is,” he said.

Margaret Lavallee, Elder in Residence, said a heartfelt miigwetch (thank you) to Cook, particularly for her belief in Indigenous medical students.

Cook grew up in northern Manitoba in the close-knit community of Matheson Island, which didn’t have running water or electricity. She earned her medical degree at UM in 1987, becoming one of the first Indigenous physicians trained in the province.

Starting her career as a fly-in doctor in northern communities, she bore witness to the racism and inequitable health care experienced by Indigenous people.   

She began teaching at the UM medical college in 1989, received her master’s degree in community health sciences in 2003, and went on to hold the rank of associate professor.

In 2017, Cook played a key role in the creation of Ongomiizwin, the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. She led Ongomiizwin and concurrently served as vice-dean, Indigenous health of the Rady Faculty.

She also held many influential roles in the Manitoba health-care system, such as serving as provincial lead for Indigenous health at Shared Health.

In 2020, Cook was appointed the inaugural vice-president (Indigenous) of UM. In this groundbreaking role, she led transformative change in the areas of equity, access and participation.

Dr. Mandy Buss, Indigenous health lead for the UM department of family medicine, said she hopes to carry on Cook’s work of creating safe spaces in which Indigenous people can flourish and thrive.

Cathy Merrick, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, thanked Cook for her profound impact on First Nations in the province.  “[You] broke trails for our people in terms of who we can be,” Merrick said, wishing Cook well in her retirement role as a kokum (grandmother).

Dr. Marcia Anderson hugs Dr. Catherine Cook.

Dr. Marcia Anderson and Dr. Catherine Cook

Dr. Marcia Anderson, vice-dean Indigenous health, social justice and anti-racism of the Rady Faculty, expressed gratitude to Cook for planting seeds of Indigenous advancement at UM and laying groundwork for leaders who came after her.

“Dr. Cook used her position to create opportunities for us,” Anderson said. “She’s been a really great example of not just building the path, but also making it wider…. We learn from what she has done, and then try to go a few steps further.”

Cook influenced others to work with humility and humour, Anderson added.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, a 1998 Indigenous medical alum, recalled suffering from impostor syndrome during medical school. “Catherine was the voice who constantly said to me, ‘You belong here. You have important work to do.’”

When Cook spoke at the celebration, she paid tribute to the supportive physicians in UM’s J.A. Hildes Northern Medical Unit (now Ongomiizwin – Health Services), who showed faith in her when she was a new family doctor, assuring her, “You’re very capable…. We know you’ll succeed.”

Cook said none of her accomplishments have been solo efforts.

“I’ve had a great career,” she said. “Every one of you has made a really significant impact on how I’ve been able to do my work.”

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