• Eugene Stickland

The Road Ahead

On September 24, 2020, we will present the world premiere of the short film The Road. This presentation will be the culmination of about fifteen months of work for Helen McPhaden and I, going back to an initial brainstorming session at Caffé Beano in June of 2019.

It was at that first meeting, listening to Helen talk about what she hoped to accomplish over the winter, that I had the moment that all artists dream of having but don't always get: the 'Aha!' moment. Helen said that the piece should be some kind of reaction to the findings of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Something clicked inside my mind.

I thought back to a play a friend wrote years ago that had as its subject the "Highway of Tears," that notorious stretch of the Yellowhead Highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert in British Columbia. So many Indigenous girls and women have gone missing or been found dead on that lonely stretch of highway it goes beyond reason.

But then I realized there is also a more symbolic Highway of Tears - it runs through Calgary on the various streets our Stardale girls walk each and every day. It runs through my old neighbourhood in Regina on streets that Maclean's magazine has called for almost twenty years the worst and most dangerous in Canada. It runs through every city and town throughout the country.

Most chilling of all for me, in the split-second of that 'Aha!' moment - the realization this has been going on for a long, long time, and the way things are going, it doesn't look like that situation will change any time soon.

My thinking was pretty clear: we would create a piece about this road, this place where Indigenous girls and women live their lives, and in some cases lose their lives, and we would tell it across time, going back pre-contact (with European culture) into the future. I calmly laid that vision out for Helen and she was right on board. We had an idea. We had a project. What could possibly go wrong?

How we went about creating this story, using the voices of the Stardale participants, was for me to come in for a number of writing sessions where I asked the girls to write down their thoughts on a number of topics. For example, I reminded them that according to recent archaeological discoveries, First Nations people arrived in North America over 14,000 years ago. (The pyramids of Egypt are only 5,000 years old, to put that number in context!)

That was a hard thing for them to get their heads around. Life before cell phones and tablets and TV and electricity and malls and all the rest of it was at some level unimaginable. But we still got some good writing that we were able to use for the piece. Present day problems, realities, bullying, prejudicial attitudes towards them, fears of being raped and/or abducted were sadly much easier for them to talk about, and I hope that process was cathartic for them. I never feel comfortable pushing them too hard for material to use. Many of them are still in junior high school.

What was originally meant to be a stage presentation had to be altered on account of you-know-what. We were determined to tell these stories; letting the girls down and not honouring their work throughout the winter was never an option. We turned to our talented videographer Vanessa Wenzel, recalibrated the writing from stage to screen, and along with girls from the program included appearances by our elder Wanda First Rider and singer Chantel Gagnon. With the help of Helen Young who was our acting coach and the locations and costumes/makeup people at Prairie Kitten Productions, Vanessa created the short film that we will present on September 24.

I saw a rough cut of the film last week. I don't know what I was expecting. I wasn't expecting to cry, but I did. Even though I knew what was coming, even though I had typed every word those girls say in the film, it hit me hard and I cried. I cried for the whole thing of it - this intolerable situation that has gone on far too long, for the spirit of our girls who, untrained as they are, do such a fantastic job on camera, for the determination of Helen and (little) Helen and Vanessa and all the Stardale staff and volunteers who worked so hard throughout the summer holding it all together, not allowing things to fall apart, and in the end having this little gem of a film to share with all of you.

It's quite overwhelming and emotional and very humbling. September 24 happens to be my birthday and sharing this film with the world is the best birthday present I can possibly think of.

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