The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association (CWEIA) presented the first-ever Cree Women Business Conference at the Mitchuap Building in Chisasibi on May 26-27. Themed “Mind Your Business”, the event featured a variety of information sessions, motivational speakers, business workshops and entertainment.
“I felt there was a new sense of inspiration because no one has ever done a conference specifically for our women in business,” said Julie Ann Cooper, CWEIA’s business development coordinator. “This is a start for a lot of things moving for Cree women, especially the ones thinking about having a business.”
While business leadership has previously been celebrated at CWEIA’s Women Leadership Forum, most recently held last October in Val-d’Or, creating this separate event provided an opportunity to focus on the region’s growing number of female entrepreneurs.
Awards were presented to young medical aesthetics entrepreneur Sehoneh Masty from Waswanipi, Desiree Ottereyes from Wemindji for promoting the Cree language and Chisasibi Elder Jane Matthew for her inspiring mentorship.
“We give these recognition awards to remind the women their work is valuable, and they have to be honoured for their contribution to society,” said CWEIA program coordinator Josephine Sheshamush. “They lose themselves in always being there for their families. They have full-time jobs and volunteer for the community.”
Pauline Lameboy and the Chisasibi Cree Women’s Association were credited for playing a major role in the event’s success. Catherine Wash, Christina Louttit, George Tapiatic and Teresa Bearskin managed the “professional level” catering while secondary school students handled the setup, serving and cleaning.
Although the attendance of about 50 was less than anticipated, perhaps partly because of its timing just after Goose Break, this created a more relaxed and closer-knit atmosphere.
“They were okay it wasn’t all sold out,” Cooper told the Nation. “They had a safe space to share, knowing CWEIA would be listening without any political red tape. They found it less intimidating than other business conferences – Cree women walked away feeling they’d been heard.”
Indigenous women are the fastest growing demographic in entrepreneurship across the country, with the proportion of women-owned Indigenous businesses nearly doubling between 2010 and 2019. Research suggests these tend to be smaller and less financed but more diversified than those owned by men.
While recent years have seen an unprecedented rise of Cree women in important community and organizational leadership roles, empowering businesswomen is seen as a key factor in the Cree Nation’s capacity building. Through coaching and training, the conference intended to provide women the tools they need to get their businesses off the ground.
Workshops showed participants how to access funding and establish company visions – the most popular provided guidance for making a business plan. Several local entrepreneurs shared advice from their experience in different types of businesses. Rita Rabbitskin of Cree Print Customs told her inspiring story while Roger Orr from Retro Daze Café gave a well-received presentation.
Jossée Bernier was the youngest presenter, impressing attendees with tips for making wellness activities an integral part of daily life. Sherry Ann Louttit shared her humble beginnings learning how to bead during the Covid lockdown, which quickly gained popularity and sales.
“Most Cree women don’t think of themselves as businesspeople when they sell their arts and crafts,” suggested Sheshamush. “It’s to open their minds that they’re actually entrepreneurs.”
Cooper connected with aspiring entrepreneurs for a new pilot program organized by CWEIA to help them reach the final stages of their business endeavours through one year of coaching, planning and training support. Although she intended to collect five proposals, there are currently nine applicants who must demonstrate their commitment during the next month to be accepted into the program.
“Two ladies from Whapmagoostui almost cried realizing they have one more chance to be a part of it,” said Cooper. “It touched their hearts – I was moved myself. Hopefully by next year they’ll have something up and running. The idea is to push them to get this business off the ground.”
The boot camp tailors mentorship to each woman’s stage of development, helping them prepare a business plan and identify potential funding sources. They may qualify for the program by showing they have begun the process of launching a business.
Cooper works with economic development officers (EDOs) in each community. She encourages women to work with their local EDO to gain band support, then come to her with their business plans if they need follow-up training or resources.
CWEIA is developing a business booklet for Cree women, including profiles of past award winners, inspiring quotations, EDO contact information and funding sources at the federal, provincial, regional and local levels. Cooper wants to create a regional entrepreneurship fund for Cree women and intends to reach out to Hydro-Québec, which already offers similar grants to Indigenous communities.
As many aspiring entrepreneurs at the conference start small, CWEIA is seeking contributions from companies and entities to finance microfunding grants for start-ups.
“Now with CWEIA being there to help out, they think they can start this,” Cooper explained. “We all walked away smiling. Our women are united when they get together. They’re strong and resilient and spring up even though it gets hard – like a palm tree in a storm we remain standing.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter