Dr. Shirley Cheechoo receives Order of Canada

Dr. Shirley Cheechoo, right, is presented with an Order of Canada by the Right Honourable Julie Payette during a special ceremony at Rideau Hall last week. photo by Sgt. Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall

Debajehmujig, Weengushk founder accepts Canada’s top civilian honour

RIDEAU HALL – With a long and storied career in film, acting, writing and as a visual artist, Shirley Cheechoo is used to receiving accolades, but receiving the Order of Canada this past week steps into different territory.

“I have been given the Order of Canada on behalf of so many people in my life,” she said. “A lot of people have assisted me in coming to this place in my life, including my parents. If it wasn’t for my mother I wouldn’t be where I am today and if I didn’t have Weengushk (Film Institute) I don’t think I would have received the Order of Canada.”

Given Ms. Cheechoo’s impact and contributions to theatre, film and the arts, that final prediction seems hard to credit; witness her citation as she was inducted into Canada’s highest civilian award.

“Filmmaker, actor and visual artist Shirley Cheechoo is, above all, a gifted storyteller,” read the citation as Ms. Cheechoo was called forward to her investiture. “Throughout her multifaceted career she has drawn on her First Nations heritage and used art to explore themes of trauma, healing and identity. A revered mentor in Indigenous arts communities, she has promoted creative opportunities for fellow artists as the founder of both the De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Company and the Weengushk Film Institute. As the first Indigenous person and woman to serve as chancellor of Brock University, she has shared her leadership and wisdom with new audiences.”

Ms. Cheechoo was only able to bring a couple of members of her family to the award ceremony itself, but Brock University, of which Ms. Cheechoo is the chancellor, held a celebration in her honour this past Friday.

“It was a really great celebration put on by Brock,” said Ms. Cheechoo. “Hearing the stories from all the different speeches was very touching. It was an amazing, amazing night.”

One gift in particular that night struck deep into Ms. Cheechoo’s heart. “I was presented with an eagle feather,” she said. “That is the first time. All of my family was very moved.”

The presentation of an eagle feather is an important recognition of the work that an individual has done and is doing and acts as a guide for them as they journey in their work.

Ms. Cheechoo is currently engaged in a number of projects, first and foremost her passionate involvement with the Weengushk Film Institute wherein she continues the legacy of her own mentor, Tom Peltier, for whom the studio at Weengushk was named, in assisting youth to tell their stories and to find their footing in the arts. Mr. Peltier instituted an arts program that inspired an entire generation of Anishinaabe youth to pursue a career in the arts that Ms. Cheechoo and her husband Blake had both attended in their own youth.

The Order of Canada is our nation’s highest civilian honour. Shirley Cheechoo is now an honoured member.

Weengushk Film Institute (WFI) is a non-profit, artist-focused film and television-training centre, “dedicated to unlocking the creative potential of Indigenous youth and is a non-profit, artist-focused film and television-training centre, dedicated to unlocking the creative potential of Indigenous youth.”

Ms. Cheechoo is also currently writing the script for a movie involving hockey and the involvement of Indigenous players in the sport as seen from a variety of Native and non-Native perspectives.

“It’s been challenging,” she laughed. But when passion is involved, doors tend to open and Ms. Cheechoo’s career has proven that perseverance and determination can take you from a small Northern Cree community to the pinnacle of national and international recognition.