Treaty 4 News is excited to present the Top 10 Most Influential Economic Developers feature that profiles business leaders, job creators and entrepreneurs who have made a valuable contribution to improving the lives of Indigenous people through business and have helped keep Saskatchewan’s economy vibrant and strong. 

In the past few years, more and more Indigenous people have forged business careers working at the First Nation community level, building Tribal Council economic development projects, climbing the corporate ladder at government Crown Corporations and in the last few years guiding the private sector as they engage with First Nations.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs are building successful brands like Neechie Gear, Shop Indigenous, SheNative as they develop products for an ever growing Indigenous market.

Over the past weeks, Treaty 4 News has presented one profile of an economic developer we believe is influential in building a better future for Indigenous people through business.

In this final week of our feature, we introduce Chief Tammy Cook-Searson.

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson – Top 10 economic developer

By NC Raine

Chief CookSearson

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. Source: Facebook.

With six reserve communities, 18 reserve lands, and a population over 10,400, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in north central Saskatchewan is not only the province’s largest First Nation, but one of the largest in Canada.  With Chief Tammy Cook-Searson being the first woman to lead the Lac La Ronge Band, the reserve also contends as one of the province’s most progressive.

Naturally, leading a tribe of over 10,000 proves to be quite a demanding role.

“It’s a huge job,” says Keith Mirasty, Lac La Ronge councillor representing Little Red River.  “I’m a council member of a small community, and there’s days when I get overwhelmed. But then I think – if Tammy can do it for such a large First Nation then there’s no reason why I can’t for my community. So she’s been an inspiration with her work ethic.”

This is a common sentiment by those close to Chief Cook-Searson. It becomes evident that this isn’t just a job for her.  This is her life; she’s passionate about making a difference, and pours herself into it wholeheartedly.

Mirasty, who has been involved with Cook-Searson through various states of council and business, has seen first hand just how committed she is.

“She has a very strong voice and doesn’t give up. If she’s told no, she’ll find a way to get what she needs for her community, putting in long hours and taking the project by the reigns,” he says.

“She’s a special leader, and I think that has a lot to do with her healthy lifestyle and strong, supportive family.”

Growing up with her family on the trapline in northern Saskatchewan, Cook-Searson has long been supported by the close family network.  But that didn’t mean there weren’t bumps along the way. At age 7, and again 12, she was put into a residential school, where her hair was cut off, she was separated from staying with some of her family, and forbidden to speak Cree. Unsurprisingly, Cook-Searson says the experience was quite negative, and damaged her self-esteem. In her teenage years, she dropped out of high-school and began drinking and using drugs. The experience seems to have changed Cook-Searson for life.

“I began to join AA meetings because I wanted a change. And I haven’t drank since then. I’m 45 now,” says Cook-Searson.  “Almost 30 years later, that choice made such a positive impact on my life. I learned so much from the people there and their stories. I learned to have self-confidence.”

It was that confidence and some prompting from her family that led her to running for tribal council. She served as a councillor for eight years, before running for Chief. And then, at the tender young age of 33, Tammy Cook-Searson became the first woman to lead Saskatchewan’s largest First Nation.

“It was a steep learning curve in the first years, not knowing what all the expectations are,” she says. “It’s a demanding job that requires a lot of patience from your family and spouse. You’re always on call. If something happens, if there’s a state of emergency, that’s your whole focus. You need that unwavering support of family behind you.”

Through that support, during her time as Chief, Cook-Searson and her council have initiated a number of developments, including a seniors care home, health program, and community sport programs, to name a few. Cook-Searson is also President of Kitsaki Management, a development organization which invests in development activities of the Lac La Ronge band. Sectors invested in include transportation and road construction, insurance, environment, mining, and agriculture.  A recent contract with SaskPower to build power lines servicing the mines created 250 jobs.

Kitsaki also has a community dividends program. Over the last few years, they have reinvested between $2-2.5 million back into the community, the money going to programs that support culture, elders, and wellbeing.

“We’re going to build a wellness/recovery centre in La Ronge. We’re doing well within our economic development, but we have to balance that with social development,” she says. “If we don’t do anything for the social issues impacting people, if we don’t get to the real soul and heart of the issues, then we can’t help people make positive choices. We need to impact future generations through mental wellness.”

Ec Dev series Congratulations-AdIrwin Hennie, band councillor at Lac La Ronge, has been a colleague of Cook-Searson’s throughout her entire career, and has seen the community and social changes that Cook-Searson has achieved.

“There’s not one aspect of the community that she’s not involved with. You won’t find a more caring person in the world. I think it’s due, in large part, to her upbringing and traditional values,” says Hennie.

“I’m 74 years old, and she leads me. Not the other way around. I’ve had a lot of leaders in my life and no one compares to her.”

In 2002, that leadership was recognized when Tammy received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. She then received the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal in 2006 and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.  June 3, 2016, she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Regina, the highest honour the university can bestow, in recognition of her commitment and contributions.

As only the 12th Chief of Lac La Ronge since 1889, Cook-Searson hopes her leadership has an impact on generations both young and old. Youth in her community, particularly females, may now have an expanded concept of what’s possible, thanks to Cook-Searson’s groundbreaking leadership.

“For me, [being the first woman as Chief] means opening doors for so many young women. When I first became Chief, sometimes people would say ‘it’s a woman’s role to be home with her kids’. But being the first elected female as Chief is beginning to change roles and change mindsets,” she says. “It’s important because it instills confidence into our young ladies to say one day I can be anything I want.”

At 45 years young and boundless enthusiasm for making a difference to her Lac La Ronge family – all 10,000 of them – it’s a safe bet that Chief Cook-Searson still has years of leadership left in her.

“As First Nation people, we need to have our voices heard. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to influence provincial and federal policy,” she says. “It’s about self-determination and self-governance, and taking our future in our own hands.”

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