Lac La Ronge chief wins leadership award

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson during a campaign stop in Prince Albert. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson will be the first recipient of the provincial chamber of commerce’s Community Leader of the Year Award.

Cook-Searson heads the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and their network of band-owned businesses. Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, said the the Kitsaki group of companies has seen some “very positive outcomes” during her tenure.

But the award looks beyond Kitsaki, he said, to recognize Cook-Searson’s “big vision” and her “cool and collected” leadership in the midst of crises.

“She exemplifies community service, leadership and walks the many different roads between her culture, her community, the business community and politics exceptionally well,” he said, calling her “an obvious choice” for the inaugural award.

In an interview with the Daily Herald, Cook-Searson said she’s looking forward to bringing her family and colleagues to the award reception in Saskatoon next month.

“I feel really good about it,” Cook-Searson said. “I think it’s an important award, and I’m really honoured to be chosen.”

She said her leadership style is centred on hard work and collaboration.

“It’s just bringing people together and finding solutions,” she said. “I know that it takes a whole team to make a difference, and whenever I need help I ask for it.”

She said leadership is about “building people up.” It’s also about being there. The chief said she tries to stay on the ground whenever the community faces crises.

“When you’re right in the community, like for the 2015 fires for example, you know what things are lacking – and then you’re able to address them,” she said. “You have those connections to the people.”

McLellan said the northern wildfire crisis, which prompted the evacuation of La Ronge and neighbouring communities, was one of Cook-Searson’s finest moments.

“We followed her on Facebook, and there were thousands of people looking for updates from her, and she was always factual, but also encouraging and timely,” he said.

“She doesn’t panic,” he stressed. “She seemed to us like the calmest person in the room during one of the most difficult times in her community’s history.”

McLellan also commended Cook-Searson’s efforts to bring a wellness centre to the band, a facility meant to help tackle addictions and trauma across the province’s north.

“I think that’s a good example of a big vision and one that’s achievable,” he said. “We believe she’ll get it done.”

Cook-Searson said the project isn’t yet fully funded, but the feds recently contributed $200,000 to hire a project manager. The band has recently moved to choose a site for the centre, just south of La Ronge.

“It’ll be the first beautiful building that you see when you come into La Ronge,” she said.

The chamber of commerce also highlighted Cook-Searson’s success as a businesswoman and entrepreneur. She owns and operates a marina, and once served as director of SaskPower International.

Her current business pursuits mostly centre around the band-owned Kitsaki Management Limited Partnership, which provides services to mining companies – including trucking and catering – and even operates a golf course. Cook-Searson said that Kitsaki pours millions back into community projects.

She said the band’s businesses have hit a rough patch during the economic downturn, shedding about 500 employees. But she said they’ve worked to branch out into new sectors, like power line construction, vegetation management and engineering, and are poised to make it through the resource crunch.

“We are able to employ hundreds of people,” she said. “Because we’re diversified, we are able to sustain and weather through the tough economic times over the past few years.”

McLellan said that Cook-Searson has taken her collaborative approach to Kitsaki. She provides wise “guidance,” he said, but is also prepared to rely on professional managers and experts to work out the details. He said it shows in their results.

“Kitsaki has seen some very positive outcomes in sometimes difficult environments,” he said. “The uranium sector is not as vibrant as we’d like it to be in Saskatchewan right now and yet Kitsaki companies are still doing a significant amount of work in the north.”

Serving five terms as chief and running a business empire takes up a lot of Cook-Searson’s time. She said that she couldn’t possibly manage without the support of her community, her staff and her family.

“I have a good support system at home and I think that’s really key,” she said. “To be able to work for the community you need a very patient husband and patient kids.”