Kakwiranoron Cook is inspiring people in at least two nations, as he uses his Mohawk and Sioux heritage to push him to a new level. (Courtesy HEC University)
It’s hard enough to get Kakwiranoron Cook to slow down for a few minutes to answer some questions, but considering he managed to complete an executive, bilingual degree while raising two young children – it’s not impossible.
“It had been 17 years since I graduated with my BA, so I had to re-engage old time management tricks and do my best to avoid having to pull all-nighters, which I swore off in undergrad,” Cook said. “Staying up later at night was always challenging with young kids in the house. It was tough throughout the 15 months, but I’m so glad that I did it.”
Cook recently graduated with an EMBA – Executive Masters of Business Administration – a joint degree offered by McGill University and HEC Montreal.
Those admitted to the 15-month program are normally managers, entrepreneurs, or business professionals with at least 10 years work experience.
Cook says his decision to apply came “very late” in the application cycle. In 2017, while working at First Peoples’ House, he received an email from the program administrators seeking Indigenous applicants for the class of 2019.
“They offer a scholarship for Indigenous people that had been awarded to students in the previous four years in a row and they didn’t want to miss a year,” Cook said.
“So I reckoned, maybe I apply and see what happens? Though I suspected my French wasn’t strong enough to make the cut, and that it was one of my weakest links – apparently it was sufficient and I made it through to the end,” he said.
Cook, who is Akwesasne Mohawk and Oglala Lakota, but has close familial ties to the Horn family in Kahnawake, is also father to a five-year-old and an eight month old son – the latter born just before his final paper got underway.
“I kept a kernel of knowledge with me that sustained me throughout, which was that I ‘tend to thrive in chaos,’” he said. “I didn’t exactly know that about myself but found it intriguing and decided to own it, reminding myself when times get overloaded that I could still thrive in such conditions.”
After moving to Kahnawake from the Oglala Lakota community in South Dakota – “in the poorest county in the whole USA,” Cook said – he was motivated early to get educated and experience the world.
Prior to pursuing his EMBA, Cook worked as a researcher for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake
In addition to his business expertise, Cook attended massage therapy school “on a whim” during a break from his university degree – but ended up working in Hawaii as the Pacific Regional Training Manager, overseeing the training of massage therapists at 11 different locations around the Pacific.
“Everyone was always so gracious to share their culture with me and in turn I got to tell them about my Lakota and Kanien’kehà:ka people,” Cook said. “Indigenous cultural exchanges were powerful.”
More recently, Cook was appointed to an new position in the McGill faculty – Special Advisor, Indigenous Initiatives – created specifically to address commitments and guidelines set forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as findings from a university task force, to hopefully double the Indigenous presence on-campus by 2022.
Before that, he worked for the university’s Dean of Students as their Indigenous Outreach Administrator, travelling to high schools, school boards, career fairs, and education centres to promote higher education.
Cook hopes to use his journey in higher education to inspire other Indigenous youth to pursue post-secondary studies.
For their part, the federal government announced Tuesday they would provide a much-needed boost to Indigenous education.
The budget, which segregated the students according to provenance, allocated $327.5 millon over five years for First Nations students, $125.5 million over 10 years for Inuit students, and $362 million over 10 years for Metis students.
But part of the process to encourage Indigenous youth to embrace education, Cook said, is to be open about the fact that everyone has their own journey.
“For some, they go straight through from high school and CEGEP, while others embark as mature learners, returning to education after working and/or having a family,” he said. “Everyone is on their own unique path.”
“I think above all it’s important to keep dreaming and visioning,” he added. “Some of my dreams have come true.”