It’s typical of Catherine Cook that she edited a statement to emphasize teamwork in a national award for her work to be announced on National Indigenous Peoples Day.

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It’s typical of Catherine Cook that she edited a statement to emphasize teamwork in a national award for her work to be announced on National Indigenous Peoples Day.

The Manitoba Métis family physician and university administrator has been honoured with the 2018 Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health award by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The award celebrates efforts to eradicate inequities in the quality of health care for Indigenous people.

Cook, originally from the Métis community of Matheson Island, has been chipping away at the underlying factors behind those inequities for 30 years. She’s done it by bringing people together.

The college set up the award for Indigenous health in 2014. They named it for Dignan, who was an advocate to eradicate racialized inequities. The Mohawk doctor and co-founder of the Native Physicians Association of Canada.

"Dr. Cook’s story is her ability to see the whole picture: Health and wellness is not (only) about treating an individual’s individual symptoms. It’s also about recognizing the complex systemic social determinants of health which contribute to ill health for Indigenous peoples," the college said in its statement in advance of the award.

"That is where her profound contributions lie, working with communities across disciplines to improve health outcomes," the statement said.

"Cook’s work behind the scenes to address inequities was instrumental in making Indigenous health a priority for the University of Manitoba," the Royal College said.

In 2017, the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences and the Max Rady College of Medicine officially launched the largest Indigenous education and health unit in Canada.

The key phrase for this doctor is "behind the scenes."

Ongomiziiwin — the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing — amalgamated four existing units including the northern medical unit under one administrative roof.

Ongomiziiwin (Ojibwa for Creating a Path for Generations to Come) was set up to level historically unequal playing fields.

"Knowledge translation is a two-way street. The university takes the perspective they are sharing knowledge with the communities. It’s a bit of a struggle to acknowledge communities are also sharing much needed knowledge with the university," Cook explained.

The college also acknowledged Cook’s style of diplomacy, building bridges locally and globally.

She described her style as more of a natural evolution that led to links between people she knows in the academic, medical and Indigenous political and social service worlds.

"I don’t choose the people. They choose each other," Cook said.

"For example, I’ve had relationships for as long as I can remember with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and other organizations, through the work that I’ve done in communities. Sometimes researchers would know that. I was also employed by the university as a physician when I flew up north to the communities.

"And people would indicate, ‘Well she goes up north. Maybe she has some ideas for you.’"

She helped establish the International Academic Health Network five years ago. It focuses on developing Indigenous health leadership through faculty and student exchanges with New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, the U.S and Canada.

"You know it’s funny, when you start, you just start and you build over time," Cook said.

Cook, who’s heading up an Indigenous committee for the province’s shared health care system reforms, said her work mainly means opening channels of communication between people she knows.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca