Q+A Radical Acts: Spirit of the Law

At the age of 96, Agnes Cooke — farm girl, former nurse and enthusiastic philanthropist — aims to be the change she wants to see
Agnes Cooke
Agnes Cooke. Elizabeth Stange

Where did you spend your childhood?

I grew up on a farm near Elfros, Saskatchewan. Back then it was thriving, but it’s a bit of a ghost town now (2016 population 90). We grew mixed grain and had lots of animals, horses and cows, pigs, and sheep. My brother’s family still farms the land.

How would you describe yourself?

Lucky. I am very lucky. I had fantastic parents. They were both loving, hard-working, progressive Icelanders. I guess I’d also say I’m kind — or, I mean, I think I want to be kind. Sometimes, that’s not easy. But mostly it is. I like to do what feels right to feel good about me.

What pulled you away from your rural roots?

My parents were very interested in education. My mom was a teacher and my dad had good success as a farmer, and they wanted their kids to be educated. I went to the University of Saskatchewan for what we used to call “household science” (nutrition and food science) but it wasn’t for me. I switched to nursing and loved it. Student life was strict: curfews and 12-hour days, not much freedom — the year before I went, students weren’t even allowed to have a radio. We all bonded so strongly and we still have reunions. From there I moved to Port Alberni, and then worked at the Edmonton University Hospital.

You’ve lived in Calgary for nearly 70 years; what brought you here?

My husband, Donald, was a geologist, so Calgary was the place. We lived along the Elbow River and raised our three children here.

It’s a challenging time living in a seniors’ care centre during COVID. What brings you joy?

It’s been hard. At least I can see my daughter now and go for walks. There’s not a lot else to do, but something that makes me happy is helping young people. When Donald died in 2003, I started a foundation and started making donations to create bursaries and scholarships. It’s addictive! I created scholarships in the University of Calgary’s nursing program, and other causes, too. I’ve met some wonderful people that way and it’s been rewarding meeting and hearing from the students. That’s really heartwarming. It’s just really, really special.

This year, you created a scholarship (the Agnes Stephanson Cooke Law Bursary) for Black law students — a departure from the nursing-related gifts you’ve gravitated toward. Why this, why now? 

I know that I’m fortunate, and I’m able to give where people might need help. And the more I learn about what’s going on in the world, the more I want to help. There are too many sad, awful stories about how the law and society treat Black people unfairly, and I started to understand that if change is going to happen, we need more Black lawyers. One thing I could do was to create a scholarship for students who need help to get through law school with success. I’m so happy if I can make any difference.

Editor’s note: We’re sad to note that Agnes passed away just prior to publication. We are fortunate to have known Agnes, and are forever inspired by her generous spirit.