Indspire Awards honour Cree doctor who serves her home community

Dr. Marlyn Cook is a Cree doctor who returned home to work with her community. She is a 2019 Indspire award winner in the health category and is being honoured for blending traditional healing and western science.

Watch Sunday's broadcast as Dr. Marlyn Cook and 11 other Indigenous honorees are celebrated

Dr. Marlyn Cook was one of 12 recipients of the 2019 Indspire awards. The awards recognize the outstanding achievements of Indigenous peoples across Canada. (CBC)

Dr. Marlyn Cook didn't plan to work in her own community but six years ago, she became Misipawistik Cree Nation's community physician.

"I never thought I'd be able to come back because I thought it'd be too difficult to take care of family, but that's what brought me back," she said.

In 1987, Cook became the first First Nations woman to graduate from the University of Manitoba's faculty of medicine. This year, she is one of 12 Indspire award winners. She won in the Health category for her decades of work as a doctor in First Nations communities.

Serving her home community happened after three of her sisters were diagnosed with cancer within a short period of time. She said it has brought her closer to her friends and family.

"It's not as hard as I thought it would be... but it's still difficult because just about everybody working with you is your family."

She currently lives in St. Laurent, Man., 95 km from Winnipeg. For three weeks of every month, she is on 24 hour call as the community physician. 

The health effects of past trauma

In her words, the number one detriment to people's health in her community is past trauma.

"I talk to the patients about when they have chronic pain… like they could have spiritual pain, mental pain and emotional pain — and then trying to find other ways of coping with the pain that isn't taking opioids or narcotics," said Cook.

Cook said it is often an easy out for doctors to write prescriptions for medication. Instead, she encourages her patients to seek out mental health therapists and traditional healers to help their wellbeing.

"We've had studies now that show that the number one thing that helps the person heal is an elder and then the healing circles and the ceremonies and land based activities," she said.

While mental health and traditional healing practices become more available, Cook hopes there is a push for more funding for First Nations health. Eventually, she would like to see traditional healers and mental health support workers being paid a better wage.

Students face racism

She said her ability to serve her community is thanks to the people who helped start the pre-medical studies program for Indigenous students in 1979.

"I think the visionaries of that program had thought that the people would be able to come and go back to their communities," said Cook.

Today, Indigenous students have more supports than ever before, but Cook said there are still obstacles that make it harder for Indigenous people to become doctors.

"I think the biggest challenge when you get into medicine is you still get a lot of racism," she said.

"I talk to students now… and they're still seeing as much racism as I saw."

Cook has written an autobiography and is hoping to find a publisher for her book.

For more on Marlyn Cook and the other winners, catch the broadcast of the 2019 Indspire Awards on June 23 at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Television, CBC Radio One and CBC Gem.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1