Each year Reelworld honours one remarkable individual whose lifetime of work, passion and determination has made a significant contribution to Canadian film, television and media. Their dedication has opened doors for diverse artists and forever changed the Canadian entertainment landscape.​ We are proud to announce our 2020 Visionary Award Recipient is Shirley Cheechoo, Chancellor, Brock University, Award-winning Artist, Actor and Film Director.

As a member of the Cree Nation, Shirley Cheechoo was born in Eastman, Quebec, and moved to Moose Factory, Ontario when she was a young girl.  It was there that she was separated from her family and sent to several residential schools in Northern and Southern Ontario.


Shirley went on to become an alumna of the prestigious Canadian Film Centre, Sundance Film Institute and the Banff Centre. She is the first, First Nation female to write, produce and direct a dramatic feature film. Shirley is the recipient of the 2008 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Arts, and has received over 21 awards and recognition for her feature films, television movie, documentaries, and short films. She was conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Laurentian University, Sudbury, ON. Shirley was motivated by what she deems as her "frustration" as a mother and as a native woman, in seeing the constant failure of Aboriginal people to thrive and live, dream and hope. She decided to do her part in changing that through film and television. She founded De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group and Weengushk Film Institute.

Shirley was appointed as Chancellor of Brock University in 2015. She continues to use artistic expression as a way to channel her past experiences in-and-out of the residential school system. Healing from these experiences has been a personal lifelong journey, but it is artistic expression which has had the most significance and influence of who and where she is today.

-Shirley Cheechoo
Read our exclusive interview with Shirley below:

Q: How did you find your passion?

Coming from the residential school system, I had to make a choice that this experience cannot destroy me. I saw so many of my fellow students having a very hard time finding their way and I said to myself I will not be sucked into this hole of darkness and I made a choice that if I can’t do this for myself I will do it for the next generation as they too will struggle through this genocide. My passion is to help others to stop ignoring their passion.

Q: What were the tools you used to achieve success?

To stop ignoring people’s advice and listen and listen, get all the information you need to move forward. You have to understand that you can’t do things alone and find the right people who will walk with you to make your dream come true. Listening to my elders, my grandfather had influenced me at a very young age, he was my knowledge, my smile, my stories, my love and my fight. I created mentors in the business I wanted to be in and I listened even if I disagreed because that advice could help me make a big decision later in life. 

Q: What gets you up every morning - what drives you?

I wake up to another day cause I do not know what that day will bring. Just like waking up to Tonya William’s email, telling me I will be presented with A Visionary Award. At that moment I took a deep breath as this award is about today and the future. When I look at everything in that way, I wake to see what the day will bring and it drives you to walk the day from one moment to the next. 

Q: Name a challenge you have had in your life and how you overcame it?

I do not believe that you ever overcome challenges, it just comes back in different forms, the challenge is to recognize it. My bestest challenge is living with the abuse I received while being a student at the residential schools that I attended. It strikes me at moments where I least expect it. Writing is the way I deal with it, voicing the experiences in many forms of art. Art has healed me in many ways. 

Q: How do you stay positive when things aren’t working out the way you’d like?

At my age I know things haven’t worked out for me in ways that I would have liked, but I do not dwell on that, I have better things to do with my life then to let the let downs lead my journey. There are so many things to do in life that help you to stay positive and concentrate on the solutions and ask for help. When you ask a young person for advice you empower them. Just that one connection puts a smile on my face and it helps me to move toward. I have to remind myself to stop fighting to be the person I’m supposed to be and just be me, Shirley, then doors will open to make my dreams come true.

Q: What advice would you like emerging talent to have?

You have to be confident, your vision and life experiences are what will make you strong and if you fail, get back up and get back to work. In this business you will experience “I must be a people’s pleaser”. No matter what you do you will always run into people who will hurt you. I say learn to love you and your voice and your work cause no matter what you do people will dislike you regardless. Do not open your door to them and believe in yourself that you will pick the right people to come into your space. Those people are out there, you just have to find them.