By Rick Garrick
Weengushk Film Institute founder Shirley Cheechoo looks forward to encouraging more Aboriginal students to pursue post-secondary education goals in her new role as chancellor of Brock University.
“I plan to be very active in my position, trying to recruit Aboriginal youth to Brock University,” says Cheechoo, who was appointed to a three-year term as chancellor on Oct. 17. “Hopefully — it hasn’t been confirmed yet — I plan to help Brock (with) researching and putting First Nations history into the classroom. That was one of the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations and that is where I want to put my energy for the next three years.”
Cheechoo was “very honoured” when she was first approached about taking on the chancellor position. In addition to being Brock’s eighth chancellor, she is also the first Aboriginal and first female chancellor at Brock.
“All of a sudden you are being recognized for the work that you do,” Cheechoo says. “My passion has always been working with the youth, and trying to help them find some kind of sustainability in their lives and improve their life skills.”
An award-winning actress, playwright and filmmaker, Cheechoo was one of the co-founders of the De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group, which began operations in M’Chigeeng in 1984. She also directed eight films, including Backroads (Bearwalker), Silent Tears, Moose River Crossing and Johnny Tootall.
Cheechoo says her chancellor installation ceremony was “very moving,” with her brother Ben Cheechoo placing a beaded crown and feather on her head. “I was very honoured that he was the one to place the crown on my head,” Cheechoo says. “The beaded crown was made by my late mother.”
Cheechoo has four official roles as chancellor: granting every degree awarded by the university; being a role model for the university’s students; promoting and advocating for the university; and being a moral advisor to the university.
“Shirley is a very well-known and accomplished artist, visual artist, filmmaker, playwright (and) actress,” says Jack Lightstone, Brock’s president. “The reason we wanted someone in that area was because we have just opened up a brand-new facility for our (Marilyn I. Walker) School of Fine Performing Arts and we wanted a chancellor who could represent that part of our university. Our previous chancellor had been a very prominent businessman in Toronto and at that time we were trying to expand and develop our business school.”
Lightstone says there has been a “very positive” response to Cheechoo’s installation from the faculty, staff and students at Brock and the community at large in Niagara.
“The fact that Shirley is a woman and that Shirley is Aboriginal has been particularly well received by everybody,” Lightstone says. “There is a general feeling within our region and within our university that the time for the Aboriginal communities in Canada to excel and take their rightful place in Canada is long past due and that universities have a role to play in partnering with the Aboriginal community.”
Lightstone says Cheechoo’s role as chancellor will help the university to better understand what Aboriginal students need to succeed.
“We have to understand the challenges that a student might have coming from a reserve environment to a university environment in central Ontario,” Lightstone says. “Shirley is very clear that that is a transition that is a significant one for Aboriginal youth and that the university has to play a role in making that transition as smooth as possible.”
Brock currently has about 1,500 Aboriginal students and a total student population of about 18,500.