Tammy Cook-Searson is tough.
Growing up on a trapline in northern Saskatchewan, her parents taught her survival skills and impressed upon her the need to be prepared for every eventuality. They also taught her the importance of helping those in need — a mentality that attracted Cook-Searson to band politics when she was in her 20s.
She ran for a Lac La Ronge Indian Band council position for the first time in 1995 when her uncle nominated her at the last minute. She lost that race, but ran again two years later — while breastfeeding her two-month-old daughter — and won by three votes. In 2005, she became the community’s first woman chief. “I see it as a role for helping people, of being there in times of need and also advocating for things you want to see in the community,” she says.
On top of being chief, Cook-Searson is president of Kitsaki Management, a multi-million-dollar corporation that manages the band’s economic development activities, and a Canadian Ranger who assists in search and recovery operations when people go missing in the rugged and remote wilderness of northern Saskatchewan she calls home.
Despite her busy schedule — and as a means of de-stressing from her demanding work — Cook-Searson runs.
Now, 50, Cook-Searson started running in her early 30s when a friend encouraged her to give the sport a try. At first, Cook-Searson couldn’t run a kilometre. Now her personalized license plate proclaims I <3 RUN. She’s run four marathons (with a personal best time of 4:18), an ultra-marathon and many shorter road races. She started working with a coach a decade ago and dreams of one day qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
But setting and chasing big running goals isn’t just about nabbing a BQ. It’s also a way for Cook-Searson to set a good example for her community.
“It’s important for us to model a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “When you’re running regularly or exercising regularly, it helps with your mental health, and it also helps with your physical health and emotional health, so you’re able to balance a lot better.”
Promoting mental health and wellness is one of Cook-Searson’s passions. Since 2006 she has been a driving force behind coordinating logistics and securing funding for a wellness and recovery centre in La Ronge. When completed early in the new year, the $16-million facility will blend western therapeutic treatment with traditional Woodland Cree teachings.
Cook-Searson knows first-hand how important such a centre is. Her older sister died by suicide in 2003 — which Cook-Searson believes could have been prevented if there had been more resources in northern Saskatchewan to support people struggling with their mental health.
“It’s my baby,” Cook-Searson says of the centre. “It’s going to make a difference within our communities in northern Saskatchewan.”
Cook-Searson’s coach, Saskatchewan marathon record holder Jason Warick, says she is the busiest person he knows and regularly texts him at midnight or later to tell him she’s just completed a workout. “She’s going out there by herself in northern Saskatchewan, sometimes in 30 or 40 degrees below zero, for an hour’s run,” he says. “And it’s just incredible the resolve that she has to meet her running goals.”
The Lac La Ronge Indian Band encompasses 19 reserve lands and six communities with a membership of just over 11,000 people. The band employs more than 850 people between all its programs and services. “A lot of times when people call the band office, I think they envision a one-room office that just takes calls, but we’re so much bigger than that,” Cook-Searson says. “It’s a complex organization and very diverse.”
The responsibilities that come with overseeing such an operation are immense. Sometimes “life happens,” and Cook-Searson needs to put her running on hold. Notably, Cook-Searson was in the best shape of her life when she dropped out of the Las Vegas Rock ‘n Roll Marathon in 2015 because forest fires were threatening her community. Instead of continuing with her training, she assisted with evacuations and served as the public face of the emergency operations team.
That willingness to sacrifice big dreams to help others is one of the qualities Warick admires most about Cook-Searson. “Very rarely has she been able to stick to a seasonal plan, but it’s not because of lack of commitment, or toughness,” he says. “It’s because other things come up — and then she shows the toughness by getting back on track.”
As part of the Under Armour Diversity Series give-back program, Under Armour will make a $5,000 donation to help support Tammy’s initiatives in her local community. We look forward to helping and seeing what Tammy sets out to do in 2022/2023. Be sure to follow Canadian Running for updates on how the UA Diversity Series program is helping Tammy’s and our other UA Diversity Series athletes’ local communities.
Andrea Hill is a marathon runner who works for Postmedia News in Ottawa.