Gladys Cook Biography in Brief:
Gladys Cook is born in a tent on the Sioux Valley Reserve, west of Brandon, Manitoba. The first child of Ruth Wasuda Ross and Elijah Taylor, she is given the Dakota name Topah-hde-win, which means “four steps,” the number four representing the four directions of the sacred circle of life in Dakota tradition. Gladys’ mother and father are hard-working farmers, devoted both to their spiritual and cultural traditions, and the teachings of the local Anglican church.
When she is four years old, Gladys, along with her two sisters, is sent away under the law to residential school in Elkhorn Lake, about 75 km from the reserve. She will leave every fall and return home every summer until she reaches 16.
Gladys is physically abused and raped at the school while she is sick with the mumps. She will later be raped three more times.
Gladys leaves residential school when she is 16, discovering, while taking a test to become a nurse, that her education is only equivalent to a grade four certificate, not the grade eight designation the school promised. She travels to Yankton, South Dakota where she begins working as a housekeeper at a hospital. Soon after, she marries Cliff Cook, a Dakota Sioux man from the area, and has three children.
Gladys returns to Canada with her two children after she and the children are repeatedly abused by her husband, an alcoholic. She stays with her mother on the reserve, and then is asked to leave by the Indian agent because she has married outside the band. She begins working at a residential school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, leaving her children with family.
Gladys finds another job at a hospital laundry in Portage la Prairie and is reunited with her children, but life is extremely difficult, and child welfare authorities tell her she must go on welfare because her children are missing too much school. She has begun drinking heavily by this time.
Gladys realizes that her children, now in their teens, are developing serious drinking problems and, desperate, joins Al-Anon. She realizes she must confront her own demons and drinking problem. She meets a man who deeply loves and respects her, and her last child, a son, is born in 1968.
After being away for 18 years, Gladys’ husband comes to stay with her. They reconcile, and she nurses him through cancer. He dies 11 years later.
Gladys begins counselling local people on substance abuse and is becoming known in the community for her work with Al-Anon. She is hired as co-ordinator/counselor of what will later become the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, Portage la Prairie branch.
After a decade of counselling, Gladys recognizes that many of the people she is working with have been sexually abused as children, and seeks training in this area. In 1988, at a 19-day training program in California, she finally confronts her own abuse, beginning several years of painful therapy.
At a reunion at the Elkhorn Residential School, Gladys confronts the man who raped her, now elderly, and is able to forgive him.
Gladys Cook dies in Portage la Prairie, age 79.
Gladys was involved with the following groups and organizations:
The Crime, Alcohol and Drug Committee; the Youth Justice Committee, the Quest Group Home for Girls; and the Women’s Correctional Centre. She sat on the board of directors of Winnipeg’s St. Norbert Foundation for substance abusers.
She conducted suicide prevention workshops in Indigenous communities in Manitoba, and worked with non-Indigenous parents who adopted Indigenous children. She and her son Jeff sat on the Anglican Church’s Residential Schools Working Group, and participated in an award-winning video, Search for Healing. Gladys worked with inmates at Portage Correctional Institute and Agassiz Youth Centre, which renamed its school the Gladys Cook Education Centre.
Gladys also sat on boards that govern Manitoba’s advisory committee on child abuse and the RCMP commanding officer’s aboriginal advisory committee. In the First Nations community, she served on the National Council of Elders and was twice recognized with a sacred pipe, a great honour.
Selected awards and recognition:
- 1996 Governor General’s Award for promoting women’s rights
- 1993 Manitoba Premier’s Award for her volunteer work
- Recipient of the Order of Rupert’s Land
- Canada 125 medal for commitment to “her people, her community and her country”
- 2003 Health or Safety Promotion Award from the Manitoba Medical Association
- 2005 Grandmothers Leaders in the Community award from the community of Portage La Prairie
- 2005 Order of Manitoba