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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Shirley Cheechoo uses film to help marginalized youth find their voice

BY Martin Siberok Oct 27, 2021

Changing the lives of young people through the power of film has been Shirley Cheechoo’s vision since 2002, when she founded the Weengushk Film Institute on Manitoulin Island, Ontario.

For the past 20 years, Cheechoo and the WFI have been instrumental in shaping the lives of over 300 youth – many of whom now work in the film and television industry. An artist, filmmaker and actor, Cheechoo realized that young people needed to tell their stories – and that film is the best way to share these stories.

One of them premiered on Citytv on Truth and Reconciliation Day last month. Runs Through Their Blood: A Life Impacted – a collaborative work by WFI students Angela Kijadjiwan, Helen “DJ” Pyette and Izabelle Lagendoen – is an emotionally charged and deeply moving documentary about intergenerational trauma. 

This 22-minute film pulls no punches as it addresses the impact of residential schools, the 60s Scoop and the foster-care system and the damage they have done to the Indigenous population of Canada.

Cheecho says the goal of the WFI is to help at risk or marginalized youth; to develop life and professional skills that they can use to function in the mainstream industry and society in general. 

“The school is there to provide a resource centre for young people who have dropped out of school, who are on welfare, who are looking for another career and who want to change their lives due to the use of alcohol and drugs. I want to provide them with skills so that they can survive in this world,” she explained.

“So many of our young people have fallen through the cracks. Nobody pays any attention to them, and they are looked at as hopeless people, but all they are doing is crying out for help. I want their voices to be heard. They have been silent for far too long. They need to express their feelings. They need to tell their stories. And we need to empower them.”

Cheechoo’s concern for the voiceless comes from her own experience in residential school. Instead of seeing herself as a survivor, however, she calls herself as a “residential school warrior”.

“I learned a lot from being in residential schools and spent many years trying to figure out how to heal myself,” she said. “I found that art helped me, and I want art to help heal others.”

Having expressed herself through painting and theatre, Cheechoo found her best healing medium was through filmmaking.

“You have to do so many things – read and write, direct and produce, work on a budget,” Cheechoo elaborated. “Students learn how to use a camera and how to edit, and most importantly how to work with others. During their time here, they are learning business, leadership and communication skills. When our students leave here, they have a resume and a portfolio of around eight short films, because they have worked together on everybody’s films.”

A non-descript warehouse on a rural road in M’Chigeeng First Nation houses WFI’s film and television-training centre. Despite the modest setting, the non-profit operation attracts 65 to 70 applicants from across Canada every year.

Unfortunately, the WFI can only accommodate 10 students a year due to space limitations. As well, living space is at a premium in the community so housing students is a challenge. That’s why Cheechoo dreams of building a state-of-the-art facility in the shape of a turtle that she says will probably cost about $10 million.

“It’s a big dream, for a big mind,” she laughed. “I want the new training centre to be shaped like a turtle as it represents the circle of life. But getting funding from the government is always hard. I am hoping someone out there will hear my interviews and say, ‘I want to help out that lady out’.”

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Martin Siberok is an editor of the Nation as well as a professor of Journalism at Montreal's Vanier College.