Bridges:CeCe Baptiste connects Indigenous values to the business world
CeCe Baptiste remembers being incredibly hungry.
She used to watch her high school classmates eat their lunches at school with a gnawing sensation in her stomach and a longing in her eyes. At 15, she rarely had money to buy food. Baptiste was living with an older cousin but was essentially out on her own, working and going to school.
Despite the constant pangs, there was a deeper hunger inside her to finish high school so that she could go to university.
Baptiste’s journey to become a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA), blending her traditional views as a Cree woman with her successful business career in Saskatoon, and winner of numerous accolades, including a CBC Future 40 award and one of the University of Saskatchewan’s Canada 150 Citizens, is one of pure determination.
Baptiste grew up on the Little Pine Cree First Nation near Paynton, Sask. but moved to Saskatoon at the age of five, when her parents divorced. Her mother wanted to go to school and escape her abusive partner. In a cruel twist, Baptiste’s older brother had internalized that violence and became her abuser.
“I needed a place where I could take care of myself because no one was really protecting me while I was growing up, from what I was facing within my own family, and I knew that the only way to be self-sufficient was to get my education,” Baptiste says during a phone interview from Montreal, where she was selected to participate in a CPA Canada branding campaign.
Even so, Baptiste says she was surrounded by strong role models who instilled in her, at a young age, the importance of post-secondary education. Her parents met at the U of S, where her mother completed three degrees. There was no doubt in Baptiste’s mind that she would go to university. Getting there was the challenge.
At 13, Baptiste returned to her home community, describing it as a positive experience because she got to reconnect with her father and culture. But her brother had followed her, and Baptiste says she knew she needed to go to high school in the city if she wanted to be on par with other students.
Living with her mother in Saskatoon would also mean living with her abusive brother, so Baptiste set out on her own. Being only 15, broke and angry at her familial instability, Baptiste struggled to complete semesters as she juggled jobs and bounced from couch to couch.
But that hunger to learn remained.
Baptiste knew she was smart. She loved books and learning — her favourite subjects were English and math. She had always wanted to be a writer, but decided a career in finance would provide her with the stability she would need after having her first daughter, Sienna Waskewitch.
“She had a different plan, but because she knew she had someone else to take care of, she knew her life would change after that,” Waskewitch says.
Baptiste completed her Grade 12 and took her certificate in Indigenous Business Administration, completing her commerce degree at the U of S Edwards School of Business with a double major in finance and economics. She then received her professional designation in accounting.
CeCe Baptiste being awarded the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Strength of Our Women award in the business category. Submitted photo. Saskatoon
Looking back, Baptiste says she’s particularly proud of her time as a financial analyst at the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC).
“I was really able to flourish and grow and take on more responsibilities within my division, and then make some real change in terms of owning who I was as a Cree woman and sharing that with my colleagues, to really change people’s philosophies,” she says.
Not only does Baptiste open the lines of communication, she pushes for people to put actions behind their words.
While at SRC, she developed the Aboriginal Mentorship Program which fosters Indigenous participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, according to Craig Murray, SRC’s vice-president of the mining and energy division.
He says the project wasn’t part of Baptiste’s job description: It was something she wanted to do, and continues to be involved with to this day.
“CeCe is a highly capable, warm and friendly individual with strong convictions. She was not afraid to stand for whatever she felt was right, but always approached people and new situations with an open mind,” Murray says.
That’s how Baptiste views business relationships, always asking “How do I use my voice and my influence and my connections to get organizations to work together and create great programming?”
Baptiste’s knack for connecting non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities is what struck Terry McAdam.
The former vice-president of finance at Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) helped hire Baptiste, who is currently the institution’s executive director of finance.
“She has that welcoming attitude that says ‘we can work together toward common goals.’ I think people feel comfortable around her and dealing with her, and certainly you can see in her job resume that she’s had employment in First Nations environments and non-First Nations environments, so she brings that kind of experience to the table,” McAdam says.
Her background in both finance and in service organizations exemplifies the passion that she brings to her career, McAdam noted.
There are people who go to work, do their job, and then go home. Baptiste is not one of them.
CeCe Baptiste speaks at an event in Saskatoon. Submitted photo. Saskatoon
The 40-year-old mother of two sits on various boards, including a seven-year tenure with United Way and a current position with the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce.
Community involvement was once again a learned behaviour. Baptiste says her mother was a single parent, living with a disability and going to university, and still made it a priority to join organizations. Her father was a political leader and continues to be a strong builder in his home community.
“They’ve instilled in me ‘You have a responsibility to do something for your community, especially when you are blessed and are privileged.’ I didn’t have the worst life; there were still lots of good teachings and values that I grew up with,” she says.
“As soon as I had a moment in my life where I had free time and I had resources to offer to the community, it was absolutely my responsibility to do whatever I could.”
Baptiste first entered the education sector as a strategic planning adviser at the U of S, where she brought her Cree language into the strategies of the institution — creating a bridge between senior business leaders and Indigenous elders.
“I was able to help facilitate and enact that trust between myself and my Indigenous community. When you’re making both sides equally happy, that you’re creating something new and different, that was a very important moment in my life.”
“Seeing that, at the strategic level, we can be doing this work, but it’s going to influence academic and other sorts of programming across the institution, which then affects the students.”
These days, Baptiste is busy advocating for the construction of a new Cree bilingual school in Saskatoon. Her nine-year-old daughter, Sierra Waskewitch, attends the Cree language program at St. Frances, but Baptiste says the infrastructure cannot keep up with enrolment numbers.
The school built for approximately 130 students has more than 600, forcing Grades 6 through 8 into another building, she says.
The overcrowding invites a host of problems — the school is segmented by portables, bullying goes undetected, bathrooms and playgrounds are too small. But having a Cree school is so important in building positive self identities, Baptiste says.
“I’ve seen such a huge difference in how my daughter feels about herself that I did not have and that my older daughter did not have.”
CeCe Baptiste stands for a photo with her nine-year-old daughter Sierra Waskewitch in front of St. Frances Cree Bilingual School in Saskatoon on July 17, 2019. Matt Olson / Saskatoon StarPhoen / Saskatoon
She still considered pulling her daughter, then six years old, out of the school — until they had a heart-to-heart.
“We were in the vehicle, and she’s like ‘mom, are you thinking of taking me out of the school? I said ‘I’m not sure.’ She got really quiet and said ‘I don’t want to leave because it’s the only school that teaches me Cree. I’m a Cree girl and that’s where I belong.’ ”
That familiar hunger resurfaced, and Baptiste raised her voice. She formed a parent committee, with the ultimate goal of building a K-12 school on the U of S campus, giving children early exposure to post-secondary education.
Until that can happen, she says the most urgent need is a new K-8 school.
“Many of the parents are on the verge of pulling children out because it’s taking much too long, and we don’t want that to happen because we know it really is going to save their lives going forward if they stay in the school,” Baptiste says.
Jayce Sutherland is part of the parent advocacy committee and has known Baptiste for about four years. She says her friend is open-minded and approachable — the complete opposite of divisive.
“She’s very respectful. She’s a sponge; everybody wants to soak in her knowledge. Her connections and her outreach and determination, just her overall personality, makes people want to come up to her.”
Through the relationships she develops, Baptiste is able to get things done, Sutherland says.
“She’s like this crazy waitress who has all this stuff on her serving plate going at one time and she’s not afraid to be busy. And that’s what makes her this superhero.”
When Baptiste is at home, looking to relax, she loves to play board games. Her family goes to the bunnock tournament every year in Macklin. Baptiste enjoys bead work and making her daughter’s powwow regalia.
CeCe Baptiste, her spouse Shawn Waskewitch and daughters Sienna, right, and Sierra, bottom, pose for a family photo. Saskatoon
Waskewitch says her mom is always finding that balance — integrating her traditional ways into her daily life while honouring other cultures. Baptiste takes her family to the Holocaust memorial and they are involved with Saskatoon’s refugee community.
Her daughter says once Baptiste found her voice in those big, often intimidating boardrooms, she started using it to help others who may feel silenced.
“She takes pride in who she is as an Indigenous woman. Struggling to embrace who you are, especially in the city, taking that with her and holding those teachings in her heart has really allowed her to flow in between both spaces that she cohabits,” Waskewitch says.
“She’s a role model for people who feel that same sort of struggle.”
Baptiste isn’t comfortable calling herself a role model, saying that is up for the community to decide. All she knows is that she has a story to share — one she hopes will inspire others.
Waskewitch believes her mother’s story is about perseverance. Baptiste experienced domestic violence, racism and financial instability, but those hardships did not deter her educational dreams.
Now that she works in the education sector, Baptiste has found a way to give back to future generations.
“I think of the students, I think of myself 20, 25 years ago. It’s because of those people … that’s going to change someone’s life. They’re going to be doing even more amazing things than I’ve ever done in the next 10 to 15 years.”
A hunger, continued.