Features | From Pivot Magazine

‘I knew I wanted to give back’

For Winnipeg CPA Sarah Cook, accounting isn’t just a job. It’s a way to contribute to her tight-knit community.

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Sarah CookSarah Cook (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

I grew up in the small town of Grand Rapids, Manitoba, population 700. Other than a brief stint four and a half hours south in Winnipeg, where my parents got their teaching degrees, I spent my childhood in the community, where everyone seemed to know everyone else. Closeness was valued in the Misipawistik Cree Nation. It was the kind of place where, during winter holidays, kids would trek door-to-door to say Happy New Year to our neighbours, who would always be armed with cookies for the little well-wishers.

That all changed when I turned 15. My parents, both adamant I receive higher education, sent me to Winnipeg to attend my junior and senior years of high school. Those credits would later help me get into university in the city. I lived with my aunties, who were stand-ins for my old community, but adjusting to urban life was tough: suddenly, my new school was the size of my old town, a shock to a shy, bookish teen like me. Instead of finding a new group of friends, I threw myself into my academics. I was a math whiz, which made my auntie, a CPA, proud. 

I stuck with the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields throughout high school and well into my post-secondary career at the University of Manitoba. But by my third year, I had to make a decision: either I was headed for a general science degree or I needed to pivot. My auntie suggested accounting, recalling my affinity for math. I gave it a shot. 

And that’s where I found my new community. I joined an Indigenous business program, where First Nation, Métis and Inuit students could receive mentorship, learn how to write a resumé and prep for job interviews, and get to know other Indigenous people in the city. I thrived in the program, finding a place where I felt comfortable and open in a city that was once daunting to me. In 2009, I graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree, with a specialty in Aboriginal business studies.

“Some say accounting is a boring career, but helping school systems can change lives”

More importantly, I had found my calling. I knew I wanted to give back to my communities through my work. While I was working as an accountant at BDO Canada, I mentored Indigenous high-schoolers through the CPA Martin Mentorship Program. Once a month, I’d take them to university job fairs, teach them how to craft a CV, introduce them to influential Indigenous Manitobans and even hang out with them at the symphony. The purpose of the mentoring program was to encourage the kids to pursue post-secondary education, just like my family had encouraged me. I loved watching them get excited at the prospect.

Now I work a job that combines my parents’ love for education with my own love for accounting. I’m the assistant director of finance at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, an organization based in Winnipeg that provides support to 56 independent First Nations schools in the province, which are notoriously underfunded. With our help, the schools are able to apply for funding, both for ambitious projects—like the creation of a portable planetarium that travels from school to school—and the most basic ones, including repairing roofs and overhauling gymnasiums. 

I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, balancing budgets and helping school administrations manage their money. That might not sound exhilarating, but it’s created major changes on the front lines of First Nations education. For instance, we negotiated with the federal government to increase funding to 10 schools in our system, which helped them fix rundown buildings, boost the salaries of teachers and staff, and bring them closer to being able to provide the same level of service that a provincial school can. Some say accounting is a boring career, but helping different people with different issues every day—especially in the school systems—can change lives.

The stereotype that First Nations governance is irresponsible or incompetent with money still exists. Quashing those misconceptions is part of my job—and something I try to do beyond my nine to five. Every year, I return to Grand Rapids and offer accounting expertise to the community, helping folks with their taxes. I plan to start financial literacy sessions, where community members can learn how to make a budget and better handle their money. Armed with that knowledge, I know they can accomplish their financial tasks. As I’ve learned, sometimes it just takes a bit of support.” 

—As told to Erica Lenti

CPA Canada and the Martin Family Initiative jointly sponsor the CPA Martin Mentorship Program, which pairs teams of CPAs with Indigenous high school students. Through regular meet-ups and activities, the program is currently working with 125 students from 34 high schools across Canada to encourage them to graduate, pursue post-secondary education, make personal and professional connections, and learn about career options, including accounting.