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Women of the Arctic Council: Sarah Cox

7 March 2024
In honor of International Women’s Day this month, we spoke with some women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about their work, opportunities and challenges for women in their field and their advice for young women.

© S. Cox

Sarah Cox is the Director of Circumpolar Affairs at Northern Affairs Canada and currently serves as Canadian Head of Delegation for the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG).

In this interview, Sarah shares her captivation with working on Arctic issues, a meaningful trip to the Arctic that served as a pivotal point in her career, her advice for young women to find good mentors and leaders, and more.

How did you get into your field of work? What drives your professional development and your career?

I have been in the federal government for 25 years. I am one of those odd ducks who knew they wanted to work in the public service from high school. I have always believed in the idea of serving Canadians and trying to improve the lives of those who live here. With that goal in mind, I pursued an undergraduate degree in political science and Native Studies, and went on to complete a master’s in public policy at Concordia University. Retrospectively, I believe I have made contributions to improving the lives of Canadians, and feel very grateful for the incredible opportunities I have had to work on meaningful projects and issues with many remarkable women from the Arctic.

I started working on Arctic issues about 15 years ago, and currently serve as the Director of Circumpolar Affairs at Northern Affairs Canada and Canada’s Head of Delegation for the Arctic Council SDWG. Despite leaving the department of Northern Affairs to pursue other job interests, I have always returned, recognizing that it is my “work home.” Furthermore, I left my job and role as Head of Delegation to SDWG a few years ago to lead a bigger team at a different federal department. I realized 10 months later that I was not thriving in my new position and I returned to my former job and role in the SDWG. Given that SDWG focuses on the human dimension of the Arctic, there is a wonderful diversity of issues to work on, including the Gender Equality in the Arctic project, which is led by dynamic and determined women, including Bridget Larocque and Embla Eir Oddsdottir.

I believe my career has been a combination of fortuitous timing but also a real desire to do something meaningful, and I really enjoy what I do. Working on Arctic issues definitely captivated me many years ago. Busting the myth of “the last wild frontier,” meeting a lot of passionate people, learning about this incredible and utterly distinct part of the country and the people in it, has, so far, been a 15 year journey. I need to believe in what I do, and that has driven my career and also kept me engaged in the job that I do, in and around the Arctic.

[M]y first trip to the Arctic…captivated me immediately – the people, who were so welcoming and committed to working together to achieve something meaningful for youth in the community, several excursions out on the land in a qamutiik, and the real sense of accomplishment that we were working towards improving the lives of young people in the community. Sarah Cox

Can you pinpoint a pivotal point in your career or life that has led you to where you are today?

I think there have been many pivotal points to my career, personally and professionally, but perhaps the one that is most relevant to my career on an on-going basis was my first trip to Pangnirtung, Nunavut about 15 years ago. I was working with the hamlet office, 12 federal departments and the newly formed Pangnirtung Youth Council to reduce the administrative burden placed on youth when receiving federal funding. It was my first trip to the Arctic and it was an intense six or so days of meetings, community feasts and learning. It captivated me immediately – the people, who were so welcoming and committed to working together to achieve something meaningful for youth in the community, several excursions out on the land in a qamutiik, and the real sense of accomplishment that we were working towards improving the lives of young people in the community.

This work began with a large workshop in Iqaluit hosted by Mary Simon, our now Governor General. I was lucky to spend a good bit of time with her and I watched how she brought so many diverse people together in that room. She was warm, welcoming and really interested in how to achieve consensus so we could all move forward in a productive way. I knew at that time that I wanted to develop those same skills and have worked to do just that over my career, successfully, I would say.

[T]here are so many wonderful opportunities in government and I firmly believe that you can make a difference, influence policy and make a powerful, positive contribution to the work. Sarah Cox

What are three traits or values you strive to bring to the workplace?

  1. Curiosity, with project work, people and systems
  2. (Gentle) disruption or a challenge function
  3. An entrepreneurial attitude

What do you think are current challenges and opportunities for women in your career path?

I will, of course, pitch a career in the Canadian federal government. I think there are so many wonderful opportunities in government and I firmly believe that you can make a difference, influence policy and make a powerful,positive contribution to the work. I’m not sure I can identify a specific challenge at the moment. Perhaps it is simply to find that place where you belong and feel valued. I have been very lucky to work with, and for, great women leaders, but men as well, all of whom taught me so much about who I want to be as a public servant and leader.

The world is your oyster. Don’t give up, stay curious and talk to as many people as you can on your journey. Sarah Cox

Do you have a piece of advice for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Find a mentor, or several. For a number of years, I have served as an informal mentor for younger people aspiring or new to the public service, many of whom are women. I am consistently impressed with their drive, humility and curiosity. I have, and continue to benefit, from my own mentors. Equally as valuable though, is to find good leaders. You can learn so much from someone who cares about leadership and has a good philosophy of caring, being innovative and creative, and empowering those who work under them so that you have an opportunity to really thrive. The world is your oyster. Don’t give up, stay curious and talk to as many people as you can on your journey.

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