Dedicated to Helping Indigenous Communities

CPAs can be found in every industry, being experts at more than numbers – and they’re great with those, too.

Every month, CPA Manitoba spotlights the diverse and dedicated professionals that prove CPA is more than a designation. 

In my small way, I just want to continue assisting First Nation communities.

With a population of almost 1,270, Grand Rapids, Manitoba isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of aspiring accountants. However, this small northern First Nation community that straddles the shore of the Saskatchewan River and Lake Winnipeg is the home town of Sarah Cook, CPA, CA.

At the age of 15, Cook left home to pursue a university education.

“My parents specifically sent me to Winnipeg so I could get into university. Back home, the courses in high school wouldn’t qualify as university prerequisites,” she explained.

Although there was an adjustment to life in Winnipeg, Cook ultimately succeeded and was accepted into the University of Manitoba. She began taking science courses but was unsure if that was the right field for her.

“I talked to a couple of my aunts because I really wasn’t sure what to do,” said Cook. “Both of them are CPAs and they suggested I go into accounting because I did enjoy the business elective courses I was taking.”

After weighing the pros and cons she ended up taking their advice. Cook graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Accounting and Aboriginal Business Studies.

Her next goal was starting a career and attaining an accounting designation – but before she would commit to a place to work, she had one criterion that needed to be met.

“When I was looking for a job I wanted to know if the organization helped First Nation communities,” said Cook. “That’s also a big reason why I got into accounting because there is a need for people with strong financial skills in First Nation communities. Growing up where I did, I wanted to be someone who could help.”

In 2008, Cook believed she found an organization that aligned with her values and joined BDO. She worked there until attaining her accounting designation in 2011.

“It was a good learning experience. I got to work with many different clients and see how they functioned,” said Cook. “It was great exposure to different types of businesses and allowed me to find what I was most interested in.”

In 2011, Cook was looking for a new experience and found it at the Indigenous Management Group as a Financial Officer.

In this role for two years, she worked with First Nation communities in a co-manager role before moving back to BDO as a manager.

“I really enjoyed what I was doing but ultimately decided to return to BDO to gain more managerial experience,” remembers Cook.

Back at BDO Winnipeg, Cook gradually took on a majority of the firm’s First Nation audit clients. By 2016, partly because of the experience and connections she made at BDO, she was approached by a recruiter representing Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre Inc. (MFNERC).

“They asked if I’d be interested in working for them, but before responding I had to talk to one of my aunts who is a Director in the organization,” Cook said with a chuckle. “After I heard all the good things about the organization, I knew I was going to accept the position.”

Cook became the Assistant Director of Finance at MFNERC and has been working there for the last three years.

Her role involves creating work plans to submit to government for funding, putting together budgets for programs in First Nation communities, authorizing expenditures and making sure everything is in place for audits.

Although she has done many things to be proud of, she was most excited about being at MFNERC during the creation of the Manitoba First Nations School System (MFNSS). 

“First Nation Schools have been underfunded for many years, recently there have been steps taken by the Federal Government to get them closer to being properly funded.” explained Cook. “When the MFNSS was being created, the communities that joined gained access to additional funds as well as savings due to economies of scale and other benefits.”

In addition to a busy career, Cook still has time to volunteer and give back to the community. Currently, she is Chair of the United Way Council for Indigenous Relations and is a Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) Income Tax Volunteer. Previously, she worked with the CPA Martin Mentorship Program for Indigenous High School Students – a joint venture between CPA Canada and the Martin Family Initiative that helps Indigenous students in Manitoba and across Canada.

“We would meet with students once a month to work on resume writing, applying for scholarships, going to career fairs and other fun things that they were interested in,” said Cook. “I really enjoyed my time there and the feedback we received always made it worthwhile.”

"With the United Way Council for Indigenous Relations, we provide strategic guidance and input into the ongoing development and implementation of United Way’s Winnipeg (UWW) Indigenous relations strategy,” explained Cook. “An example of this work would be when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Report was released. The council examined the Calls to Action in order to identify the ones that UWW could incorporate to their strategic plan to better support the needs of the city.”

When she isn’t working or volunteering with the United Way, she is back home in Grand Rapids helping as a CRA Income Tax Volunteer.

“Once a year I set up appointments for people who want help with their taxes,” said Cook. “The closest city is three hours away and that’s not easy to get to, especially if someone doesn’t have a car.”

Cook also took the time to share some wisdom she’s learned along the way for prospective CPAs considering the designation.

“You need to be motivated. I find having the ability to help people is a great motivator for me,” said Cook. “A career as a CPA enables you to do a lot of different things and it also allows you to help people in many ways. Hopefully I leave the world in a little better place than I found it.”

Cook isn’t sure where her career will go next, but you can be sure it involves giving back to the community.

“In my small way, I just want to continue assisting First Nation communities,” said Cook. “I want to help people reach their goals and help make their dreams possible. In the end, that’s what motivates me to do what I do every day.”

Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-cook-54b97167/