Although Shirley Cheechoo hasn’t appeared on screen in over a decade, the Cree actor and filmmaker says it’s an honour to be recognized for her career and contributions to the film industry.
She is the recipient of the ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival’s 2021 August Schellenberg Award.
Named after August “Augie” Schellenberg, it is given annually to an Indigenous actor based on the longevity and impact of their career, as well as their involvement in mentorship and community work.
“I was very honoured to have actually received the award because I’ve worked with Augie,” said Cheechoo.
“He was a very good friend of mine, so I was very honoured that I was actually getting the award under his name.”
Schellenberg, who died in 2013, performed in countless theatre, film and television productions including Saving Grace, Free Willy, Black Robe, North of 60 and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
The festival launched the award in 2015 in partnership with his wife Joan Karasevich Schellenberg to honour his life.
Jani Lauzon, a member of the award selection committee, said in a statement the award not only recognizes “the longevity of a career but also someone who has done so much for the community and giving back and advocacy.
“It’s so amazing to know that this year the award will go to the incredible Shirley Cheechoo who has done so much artistically but also equally for her community.”
Past recipients include Tantoo Cardinal in 2015, Tom Jackson in 2016, Tina Keeper in 2017, Michael Greyeyes in 2018, Michelle Thrush in 2019, and Lorne Cardinal in 2020.
“I’m honoured to be part of that list,” said Cheechoo.
“Being Indigenous is always a very hard path and all of us that are in this industry know that we have to work extra hard to get where we want to go.”
Cheechoo was born in the James Bay Cree community of Eastmain, Que., and has been living on Manitoulin Island in Ontario for the last 40 years.
She was first cast in the CBC-TV series Spirit Bay in the 1980s, and later The Rez. Her first feature-length, dramatic film, Bearwalker, screened at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2002, she founded the Weengushk Film Institute in M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island where she helps train emerging Indigenous filmmakers. She said she turned to teaching after struggling to get support to tell stories with an Indigenous perspective.
“The stories that I wanted to tell were unbelievable to broadcasters. [They] wanted to change my storytelling for the white audience only,” she said.
“I decided, well, maybe it’s not my time to be the one to be telling these stories. So I thought, what if I educate younger people? When I’m gone, there’s people behind me that are going to be able to tell those stories.”
The ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival takes place Oct. 19-24 in Toronto.