ST. CATHERINES— Dual history was made this year during Brock University’s fall convocation, as Cree film director Dr. Shirley Cheechoo of M’Chigeeng was installed as that institution’s eighth chancellor. Dr. Cheechoo is both the first female and the first aboriginal to hold that august position.
“I would like to welcome you to a great year here at Brock University and some to a great beginning, filled with desires, hopes and dreams that we can all share,” said Chancellor Cheechoo in her first message to the incoming students at Brock. “Stop anyone in the halls and say ‘hello’. You are the stranger if you don’t,” she admonished. “There are many who would like to walk with you and who may need a friend. If you are not new here, give a friendly welcome with an outstretched hand. On behalf of the University, I wish you all an enjoyable time together as you make this journey with us.”
There were a number of challenges to be met as Dr. Cheechoo prepared to mount the stage to be installed in her historic role, one of which was the matter of regalia.
“They had to alter the robes,” she said. “When I first put them on, they were so big! They were made for a man.” Once the ceremonial robes were tailored to fit, Dr. Cheechoo’s attention turned to the matter of the headgear. “I told them there was no way I was wearing that hat,” she laughed. The chancellor’s headgear is designed on a medieval European model, as is the custom, hardly a fitting historical context in which to start her tenure.
“I came home wondering how I was going to deal with that,” she said. Then her mind turned to her mother, the late Lillian Cheechoo, and the crown she had created for her daughter when Dr. Cheechoo had become Ms. Canadian Native Princess.
“The crown and banner for the Canadian Native Princess had been stolen before I was crowned,” she recalled. “My mother made me a crown to wear. That crown represents her teachings to me.” It was also a way for her mother to be there with her on this momentous occasion.
It was Ms. Cheechoo’s brother, Ben Cheechoo, who works in governance for the Niski Aski Nation, who placed the headgear on the brow of the new chancellor during the ceremonies.
“I put an eagle feather with it,” said Chancellor Cheechoo. “That feather represents what I hope to do at Brock.”
That goal, she explained, is to “help Brock develop a First Nation history curriculum that can be taught in schools.”
“I come from a background where when we spoke, our voices were not heard,” said Ms. Cheechoo in her first convocation address as chancellor. “Today, we still feel marginalized, excluded and devalued.”
Chancellor Cheechoo shared some of her story in that speech, of how she has struggled throughout her life. In her twenties, Chancellor Cheechoo found art, going on to become a world-famous filmmaker, writer and visual artist.
“Healing is the first step on the road to empowerment,” she told the convocation. “I took this position to make a difference and I worked hard to move beyond old racial wounds.” The chancellor said that forgetting the past is not the way forward, pointing to one of the recommendations out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, which stressed the need for more education about aboriginal people.
“My hope is that Brock takes a leadership role,” said Chancellor Cheechoo. “Canadians should know about the first people of this country and I wear this eagle feather to symbolize the beginning of First Nation history in the classrooms.”
Outgoing Chancellor Ned Goodman gave Dr. Cheechoo a high-five following her speech to the convocation. “I wish you all the things that come well with the role you have taken on,” Mr. Goodman said during his own convocation address. “They are all related to young people and that’s the nice part of being involved in a good university.”
Mr. Goodman said that he was especially honoured that Dr. Cheechoo’s first official duty as chancellor was to present him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
Back home, Dr. Cheechoo can be found hard at work at the Weengushk Film Institute in M’Chigeeng where her focus is on inspiring a new generation of aboriginal filmmakers and artists.
“This honour has already helped to open many doors for me as an educator,” she said. “It is helping Weengushk and it is helping with the youth.”
A large contingent of family members, friends and colleagues travelled to St. Catherines to help Dr. Cheechoo celebrate the historic occasion, including M’Chigeeng Chief Linda Debassige and friend and colleague Audrey Wemigwans of Debajehmujig Storytellers, the organization Dr. Cheechoo founded more than 30 years ago.
“It was amazing,” said Ms. Wemigwans. “We were all so proud of her.”
Dr. Cheechoo’s many accomplishments in education and the arts were recognized by Laurentian University in 1995 with an Honourary Doctorate of Letters in 1995, her husband and fellow artist Blake Debassige was honoured with an Honourary Doctorate of Laws at the same ceremony.