• Eugene Stickland

On The Road Again

Wasn't I surprised to learn from the Stardale website the other day that it's actually been seven years since I began working with Helen McPhaden and the Stardale girls? Seven years is a long time for anything these days!

A lot had happened in that seven years. We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrap up in 2015 which examined the impact of the residential school system on our First Nations people. One result of the Commission's findings were "94 calls to action" to address the consequences of the cultural genocide that the residential schools represented.

Then, we had the National Enquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2016, whose purpose was "to increase awareness of disproportionate violence experienced by Indigenous women." The final report was released just under a year ago in June, 2019.

It's beyond the scope of this blog post to ask the obvious question, "Has anything really changed as a result of these commissions?" One can only hope so, but I'm sure many First Nations people will tell you, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Last year, just after the Commission on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women released their report, Helen and I met at the fabled Caffe Beano to see if there was a way for the Stardale girls and me to create a response to it.

I envisioned a series of workshops as I had done for our projects in the past, where I would discuss certain aspects the situation urban aboriginal girls find themselves in today. And that's just what we did.

I asked them hard questions. (Remember, some of them are very young, and the oldest girls are only 17 years old.) I asked, among other things, if they, personally, had been the victims of racial prejudice. Or violence. I asked if any of their relatives had been murdered or gone missing. These are all heavy questions to ask of young girls. Or of anyone, for that matter.

I envisioned The Road as a metaphor for Indigenous women and girls, stretching from the distant past to the foreseeable future. One night we spoke of the pyramids in Egypt being 5,000 years old, some of the oldest man-made objects on the planet. I told them that their ancestors had been in Canada almost 10,000 years before the pyramids were even thought of.

What was life like back then? What was life like before we had structures such as the one we were meeting in, and electric lights and central heating and cell phones and Instagram and Netflix. And was the women's status in the community different then, compared to after the arrival of the Europeans?

It wasn't easy for them to envision such a day and age. They were born into the post-digital world and it's all they have ever known. (Try to take away a teenager's cell phone, I dare you!)

I asked them to imagine the future. I asked them what kind of world they envisioned for their own daughters twenty years from now? Honestly, I don't think any of them had ever imagined that they themselves would be mothers some day.

That's the beauty of youth, I suppose: they live so completely in the present moment. Like the Zen Masters tell us we should.

Each night's prompts led to writing that the girls do for me on recipe cards in brightly coloured pens. In this way, I ended up with hundreds of cards which I then attempted to shuffle into order for a performance piece, using only the girls' own words. I am only the editor.

I was shuffling them one way to tell their story in a live stage performance. But then: COVID-19. So now I am trying to figure out how to shuffle them another way, so that with our videographer Vanessa Wenzel we can create a short film in place of the stage production that wasn't meant to be.

There is so much uncertainty these days, and no one has a crystal ball, so it's hard to know how to proceed.

Meanwhile, Helen and her staff continue to work with the girls remotely as well as doing their curb-side drop-offs of goody bags for the girls, lifting their spirits and helping them through this difficult time. Importantly reminding them they are not alone.

Truly we are living in interesting times.

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