A day in the life of Brock’s newly appointed Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a busy one. After waking up in her home on Manitoulin Island, she will typically either spend her day at the Weengushk Film Institute, spend time with her granddaughter, or travel around the nation. Given the wide array of activities that Cheechoo engages in, it is more realistic to investigate what a week in her shoes is like.
“It all depends on what day it is,” said Cheechoo. “I work seven days a week, 80 hours a week. They’re long hours and I’m a writer on top of that and I do youth workshops across Canada as well. There are some days I am very busy and others where I spend the whole day with my five-year-old granddaughter.”
“I write narratives and films as well, since I’m a filmmaker. I have done a lot of documentaries and feature length films, so I write and I travel a lot too,” added Cheechoo.
When it comes to her day job, Shirley Cheechoo keeps herself busy at the Weengushk Film Institute. Cheechoo founded the Weengushk Film Institute in 2002 as a non-profit organization that teaches youth to engage in and express themselves through the arts. Weengushk, she explained, “means sweet-grass in Ojibwe and means it clears the path because sweet-grass clears the path.”
“I am the founder and executive director of the institute,” explained Cheechoo. “I work there and my day is mostly full with fundraising, recruitment and dealing with large board stuff.” “That’s what a normal day looks like, but when there are kids in the school I am even busier because I am the artistic director on top of that. I develop curricula and bring in instructors and I help students with whatever they need help with — like a mentor.”
Cheechoo is also in the process of establishing a new short film course at the institute and Brock is trying to help out.
“At Weengushk, we run a short film program that uses film as a tool to teach youth to write, read, do math, communications, business skills, and other life skills,” said Cheechoo. “They work on each other’s films and develop a resume during that process and they get an experience of what it is like to be a director, producer, script writer, supervisor, and so on. They learn all these while working on other people’s films while also directing their own films. Basically, that’s what we do and it’s a credit course through Brock University. This is the first year that it will be credited starting in Fall.”
On top of the work done through the institute, Cheechoo keeps herself busy with all manners of other projects.
“I am currently working with a couple of writers who want me to direct their films. We are in the process of developing the scripts right now. I am also mentoring young filmmakers, so if they need help putting their production or script together I help them too.”
In addition to this, she is also an accomplished visual artist.
“You will find my work either in museums or online,” said Cheechoo.
Surprisingly, although Cheechoo is an important person to Brock University, there is little representation of her artistic work at the university itself.
“There is only one piece of my art at Brock and it’s not on display,” said Cheechoo. “Brian Hutchings has a print of mine in his office. It’s a painting of three kids and one is jumping rope. It is about how in some way everyone has to jump a rope to accomplish what they need to do — to get to the other side of what they face.”
That is not to say that there has been no representation of her work at Brock. A screening of her most recent film was held at Brock in the Fall, which Cheechoo said, “went really well. There was a good turnout which is great because it was also fairly short notice.”
Over the course of her travels, Cheechoo has also made visiting Brock in person a key priority.
“I come down [to Brock] for meetings sometimes and I came down for the convocation but that’s about it so far since I live on Manitoulin Island. It’s a lot of distance to travel but I come as much as I can… I will also be around for the graduations ceremonies. That’s a must,” explained Cheechoo.
Visiting Brock is just one of the many things that Cheechoo is trying to do for Brock. She is also using her position to encourage a great future for the university.
“Its an honour [to be made Chancellor],” said Cheechoo. “I am an educated person and whatever way that I can help move things along at Brock would be an honour. To be able to push for more indigenous studies, especially indigenous history, [at Brock] and to see how Brock will deal with the Truth and Reconciliation Council’s recommendations to it is very important to me. That is also why I am working with Brock for the film program. Film is my passion and I love working with youth.”
As one who has experienced the horrors that many indigenous people in Canada faced and continue to face, truth and reconciliation is a deep passion for her.
“My life was not easy and even today I struggle to survive. I am Cree, indigenous and a woman and it’s not easy being labeled these three things. I was taking away from my parents when I was just a child and put into residential schools, my experience was not a good one and I know that in my life I will always struggle and I will continue to face challenges, but I say to whoever will listen never seek self-pity but to move forward and say, ‘I can do anything I want to do, it lies right here in the palm of my hand, strengthen comes from my heart, I will succeed’,” said Cheechoo.
In addition to her work to improve indigenous studies and relations at Brock, and her work linking Brock with the Weengushk Film Institute, she is also concerned with the status of the arts community. For Cheechoo, the arts hold a great importance to the world.
“There always will be a lot of crossover between social commentary and the arts,” said Cheechoo. “Artists will be people who put things out into the world that speak to politics in a different way. They allow people to see it rather than just going to conferences and making statements. Artwork is a voice that speaks to your own interpretation of what that artist is saying about a subject. That is even seen around the world sometimes depending on how famous the artist is. It speaks through film and other media as well. It is one of the strongest things that we can have that shows us and tells us things. Kids don’t like to be preached at, but if you show them some artwork they are very interested in what that means. That’s how I like to communicate with the youth: by television, film or any media that will reach them. That’s why it’s important.”
Cheechoo explained that during a recent trip to James Bay, she witnessed this in person.
“I went up for a conference and we taught the kids how to make a short film with their cell-phones in an hour and a half,” said Cheechoo. “One evening they put on an artwork exhibit from the youth and the art was incredible. There are a lot of talented youth there that I wasn’t aware existed until I saw it. During the art show, it was very overwhelming because, after talking to the kids, it all meant something and it was very touching. They are learning. If you tell them something, they will tell you something back in the form of art.”
Given what she has seen of the effect that the arts can have on people, Cheechoo believes that it is our responsibility as people and as a nation to show our support of the arts in whatever way we can.
“Really, the government should be providing money to schools so that students can go into a museum for free and see what else is out in the world rather than waiting to bring specific artists into the schools,” said Cheechoo. “A lot of times, students and schools cannot even afford the transportation to get them to the museums and the ministry needs to start spending money on those kinds of things so that students can start learning from these things instead of always sitting in a classroom all day.”
In order to gain more insight into the life of Shirley Cheechoo, The Brock Press asked her what she would describe as her favourite day. She replied with two answers.
“I think some of my favourite days right now are the ones I spend with my granddaughter,” said Cheechoo. “Family is important and I try very hard to spend as much time as I can with her now because one day she’ll be going off to college or wanting to spend time with her friends instead of her Grandma.”
In addition to her love of her family, there is one other thing that can come close to comparing for Cheechoo.
“Another special time for me is when I see youth succeed like by graduating,” said Cheechoo. “Not just from my film school but from anywhere. To see the look on the graduate’s faces because they have accomplished something is wonderful. Its really nice to see. They cry, their parents cry, it’s such an honourable day when a student accomplishes something.”
With the success and graduation of students holding such a high importance to her, Cheechoo intends to be at the graduation ceremony this year to send off the Brock students who have found success at Brock. She will be addressing the students as they make their way out into the rest of their lives. What she will be speaking on though, is yet to be determined.
“I can’t really say what I will be speaking on at the graduation this year,” said Cheechoo. “It all depends on what I’m experiencing at the time. I work my experiences into my speeches and I decide on it that day. I do other speaking engagements and other conferences about youth or education. I use those experiences and add them to my next speech. It is important to learn from other people. At each conference I listen to what others have to say so that I can pass on the things they tell me since they may not always have the opportunity to tell others themselves. I speak for more than just myself but I think that everybody does that really. People would rather say that what they say is entirely theirs but it’s not. We are so engaged with so many different people and things that help us to develop our own spirits, minds and bodies. It’s not really all yours, it comes from you based on what you are experiencing. It changes how you speak and how you deliver yourself.”
Those who will not be at graduation this year to hear Cheechoo’s address inspiring students before they head out into the world needn’t worry. She is always willing to supply an inspirational message to anyone she meets.
“I would have to say that, from my experience, you really have to work hard,” said Cheechoo when asked what advice she would give if given the opportunity. “You have to give yourself 120 per cent to whatever it is that you want to do and you need to have a goal. Every day, you should have a goal to accomplish that day and you have to make sure that goal gets done. Whether it take you two hours or 10 hours you have to get it done. If you work hard and reach your goals everyday you will no doubt succeed.”
Hard work is something many students are familiar with but words of encouragement are always welcome and Shirley Cheechoo is happy to oblige.
Of course, it would be naive to think that this is a full view of the life of Shirley Cheechoo. However, this peek into her extraordinary life is just enough to get a glimpse of who she is as a person. The new chancellor of Brock University is a great person indeed and holds great promise for the future of Brock University.