Cree doctor honoured for 30 years of service on First Nations reserves

Growing up on a northern Manitoban reserve in the 1950s, Dr Marlyn Cook never imagined she would be one of the first Indigenous physicians in Canada.

Now, she’s ready to transform the province’s health system.

Cook is receiving a national Indspire Award for her 30-year record of service as a family physician on reserve lands. The awards recognize Indigenous professionals who have demonstrated outstanding career achievement.

“It means somebody acknowledged that I do that work of traditional healing with the Western practice, and that meant something to me,” Cook said of the award.

Trailblazing doctor 

The Indigenous Cree woman from Misipawistik Cree Nation became the first First Nations woman to graduate from the University of Manitoba’s faculty of medicine in 1987.

As first, she says, she worked as “a very frustrated nurse” in Winnipeg in the late 1970s, where she saw first-hand the racism many Indigenous people experience in the healthcare system.

“So I wanted to be an advocate and I wanted to make some changes in the health system, but in the ’70s I felt like I had very little voice as a woman, as an Indigenous person and also as a nurse,” she said.

A doctor she worked with pushed her to go back to school and continue her education.

“She always would ask me questions and tell me to go look it up. And she’d say, ‘You know, you’re not finished learning yet. You need to continue.'”

Still, she says, she didn’t seriously consider going to medical school until 1979, after she gave birth to her son. That’s when a friend gave her some information about a new program for Indigenous students.

“It was like a light bulb came on and somebody gave me permission to think about becoming a physician,” she said.

“And so I did do that. I applied and again, went through difficulties and went through failures but stuck to my guns.”

Her graduation in 1987 was bittersweet. Her mother had passed away a few months prior, after having to be airlifted out of her community due to a medical emergency.

“I was heartbroken, because it was like I graduated too late to help my mother,” she said.

Blending Western medicine with traditional healing 

At the end of her residency, she says, she felt frustrated again. Though she had learned a lot about Western medicine, she felt she didn’t have the tools to help First Nations communities.

Though people would come to the city for care, they would return to the same poor social conditions in their communities, and not improve in the long term, she said.

She decided to turn to traditional Indigenous knowledge, blending it with her work as a medical doctor.

“In my 31 years as a physician working in our communities, I have seen those people who are in that pain from the effects of racism, cultural genocide and residential schools be able to get past that pain and let go of alcohol [and] drugs through the use of our ceremonies,” she said.

“Those ceremonies give you back identity, give you back self-esteem and a sense of pride. And you know when you go into those ceremonies that you’ve come home, that you’re doing what your ancestors did.”

Transforming Manitoba’s healthcare 

Now, she is working with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) as part of clinical care transformation team to look at ways to incorporate traditional healing into Manitoba’s healthcare system.

She said the Indspire Award gives her the chance to speak publicly about her goals.

“We’re spending millions and billions of dollars trying to heal the body without identifying the needs and taking care of the mental well-being and spiritual well-being, which traditional healing does,” she said.

With files from Weekend Morning Show 

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