Shirley Cheechoo recognized with WIFT Award of Distinction

TORONTO—Women in Film and TV Toronto (WIFT) held its 2021 award gala on International Women’s Day March 8 and Manitoulin’s own Shirley Cheechoo, actor, director, producer and serial founder of theatre and film organizations, including Debajehmujig and Weengushk Film Institute, as well as chancellor of Brock University, received a Special Jury Award of Distinction for her legacy of ground-breaking work in the industry.

“I dedicate this award to the voices of my people, as I never stand alone,” said Ms. Cheechoo in accepting the award. “I would like to first thank my son Nano, who I call my masterpiece, who is always beside me, no matter what I am doing. I would like to thank my family, all my mentors, knowledge keepers, my friends and my supporters, a chi-miigwetch to Phyllis, Juliana and Patricia for your kind words; you are my sisters and my rock. My life has not been easy, I have been silenced for decades, but when you have women like these women who speak compassionately about you, they are my inspiration to keep doing what I do so I can help young people have a vision for the world to see and I am so proud of so many of them that have walked through the doors at Weengushk Film Institute.”

Ms. Cheechoo has devoted her life to breaking paths for Indigenous artists and youth, and some of the most accomplished artists in the film and television industry cite her as their muse.

The citation for Ms. Cheechoo’s award reads: “Dr. Shirley Cheechoo was born in Eastman, Quebec on the eastern shores of James Bay. She is an alumna of the prestigious Sundance Film Institute, Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity, Women in the Director’s Chair and the Canadian Film Centre. She is founder of the successful Debajehmujig Theatre Group, Spoken Songs Productions, Weengushk International Film Festival and Weengushk Film Institute. Shirley has written, directed and/or produced 11 films and received over 21 awards for her feature films, television documentaries, short films and lifetime achievement in contributing to arts practice in the Indigenous community and throughout Ontario.”

“It is time for Indigenous voices to be heard,” said Ms. Cheechoo. “I hear this all the time but there is a big ‘but’ that goes with that. So much talk—but very little action. We have songs for our land, songs for our water, for our medicines and for our children and we have our own stories, decades of stories to tell and we want to tell them our way. We should not be told how to tell them by people who do not know our way of life. When the settlers came, by welcoming them and sharing what we know, we gave them opportunities to create brighter futures. What opportunities were created for us? It’s been many hundreds of years that we have been silenced and oppressed by those opportunities that we gave so freely. We were not taught by our elders to be activists but to be protectors and to listen. We have an obligation to our ancestors to be present and to be heard. We have an obligation to right the wrongs in order to bring balance to our mother, the Earth.”

The Special Jury Award of Distinction is presented to an individual who has built a legacy as a ground-breaking force in our industry and whose life’s work is dedicated to building a vibrant, accessible, diverse and active creative community—a description that fits Ms. Cheechoo to a T.

“I thank WIFT for this recognition and I humbly accept it on behalf of all the Indigenous voices who have had to swallow their words, hide their hurts, defer their dreams and carry the burden of shame for not having done more to protect and defend our people,” she continued in her acceptance speech, calling on all women to step forward to reach out a hand to others with stories to tell.

“Some of the doors that have been closed to us have been forced open. However, there are many more that remain closed for coloured women, that needs all of us to open them,” she said. “When we are truly accepted for who we are, especially the first people of this country, this continent, perhaps we can begin the process of reconciliation, starting with women from around the world since we women have the power to transform and reveal the true history of this world. We must restore and recognize the rightful place of all women, who can rebuild our land, take care of our children, our youth, help the waters flow clean and build a home for the many coloured women, especially our young women who need footsteps to follow and who are fighting to tell their own stories. Let’s all work together to make that change by supporting each other rather than tearing each other down.”

There is strength in numbers, noted Ms. Cheechoo. “We represent approximately 50 percent of the world’s population. We now need to claim more power that allows us to better manage the resources of this planet. Together our voices (our women’s voices) will be stronger as we are not going away. We are here to stay. I know that I am, I hope that you are with me. Chi-Miigwetch for listening to me—and chi-miigwetch for this award.”

Founded in 1984, WIFT Toronto is a member-based, not-for-profit organization which identifies as “passionate individuals who are dedicated to the education, engagement and empowerment of our members at all stages of their careers in the screen-based media industry.” WIFT is located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat and the Mississaugas of the New Credit.