Native activist Gladys Cook dies

By on June 1, 2009

Gladys Cook, who helped many native people as a counsellor and touched the lives of many more people throughout Canada by courageously being among the first to speak publicly about the abuse she and other native people suffered as children in Indian Residential Schools, died on May 9 at the age of 79 in Portage la Prairie, Man.

Ms. Cook, whose Dakota Sioux name was Topahdewin, was born in 1929 at the Sioux Valley Reserve, just west of Brandon, Man.

She attended Elkhorn Residential School from the time she was four until she was 16; while there, she suffered physical and sexual abuse and was punished for speaking the Dakota Sioux language and observing her culture.

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Ms. Cook married and had five children. Overcoming the traumas of her early life, she became a respected counsellor, teacher and elder.

She was first hired as a counsellor for what would later be named the Portage la Prairie, Man., branch of the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, but also worked tirelessly with a myriad of organizations, including the Agassiz Youth Centre and Women’s Correctional Centre in Portage la Prairie as well as local Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Al-Ateen Groups.

Ms. Cook was one of the first native people to speak out about the abuse in residential schools at a time before there were any government apologies or lawsuits, said Lisa Barry, senior producer of Anglican Video. She met Ms. Cook while working on the first video documentary about residential schools Search for Healing. “It took a lot of courage for her to do that,” said Ms. Barry, who praised Ms. Cook as “one of the bravest people I have ever met,” and as a great mentor and role model for women.

“She was just a natural teacher. She spent years going around as an elder, teaching in prisons and in schools,” said Ms. Barry, who also produced an award-winning documentary about Ms. Cook’s life and healing journey called Topahdewin: The Gladys Cook Story.

Ms. Cook remained involved with the Anglican Church throughout her life and played a key role in guiding the church’s response to the revelations of abuse in Indian Residential Schools.

Ms. Cook’s important contributions to Canadian society have been recognized in numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Award, the Order of Manitoba, the Canada 125 medal for outstanding citizenship, the Premier’s Award for extensive volunteer work (Manitoba), the YM/YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award 2006.

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