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Some Days...

Written by Eugene Stickland - January 31, 2020

Artistic creation is always an act of faith. Whether you're working alone as I usually do, or involved in collective creation like at Stardale, all you can do each time out is hope for the best and take what you are given. As with anything else some days are better than others.

I'm a trained and experienced author. I have better days than others. In working with the Stardale girls, all I can do is give the best prompts I know how and hope I say something evocative that will spark some writing from them on that particular evening.

Some of them are as young as eleven years old. Over my time with the girls (new girls each year, some continuity, but none of the original girls I worked with are still in the group) we have covered some very difficult subjects - suicide, broken dreams, now murdered and missing indigenous women. What makes me expect that they will come up with the goods night after night? I would hardly expect such consistent performance from a university class, and these are just children after all.

There's something I tell them that I think makes a difference and causes them to take our work very seriously. I tell them when I was their age, no one took what young people had to say very seriously. I grew up in the era of the adage, "children should be seen but not heard." But now, in this age, they are being listened to.

Further, I tell them that as bad as it may have been for me, a boy, it was far worse for girls. No one took them or what they had to say very seriously at all, if they even listened in the first place. I tell them for all kinds of reasons and thanks to the energy and passion of many strong women (such as Helen, such as Wanda, our elder) more and more people actually want to hear what girls have to say.

And finally, I tell them when I was young, our indigenous people were essentially invisible. Think of it: they weren't even allowed to leave their Reserves until 1967. Everything was separate, everything was kept quiet.

Honestly, I had never even heard about the residential schools until a few years ago.

I was recently reading about the 75 anniversary of the liberation of the inmates at Auschwitz, and that the people even in the immediate vicinity had no idea what was going on there. I don't think it's too hard a comparison to make. Governments tend to keep quiet about their attempts at genocide.

So I tell the girls, for the first time in memory, people want to hear what young First Nations girls have to say. They don't know anything about what their experience is like, and if thing are ever going to change, now is the time to share their thought and feelings.

A few months ago, Helen and a few of the girls and I did a performance of our piece titled Committing for an older and extremely white audience. I looked around the room and thought, "Oh man. We are dead in the water here."

But then when we started to read, a curious thing happened. They leaned forward in their chairs. They took in every last word. They asked good questions at the end. They wanted to learn, and they did learn from the girls. It turned out to be one of the best shows we ever did.

And so, these young girls and I carry on, with them telling their stories, sharing their experiences, making their voices heard. Me, just trying to give some shape to their ideas and some form to their expression.

Some days, I can almost believe we are making a difference.

Heading Into 2020

Written by Eugene Stickland - January 16, 2020

The Stardale Women's Group began 2020 with a special expanded circle which welcomed several special guests including our elder, Wanda Fast Rider and special guest Dr. Linda Many Guns from the University of Lethbridge Indigenous Studies Department.

Wanda began the evening with a Blackfoot prayer and by lighting some sage, describing to the girls what she was doing, and why. Helen began the discussion by asking about the traditional place of women in First Nations cultures. And what has happened since early times to create the situation where indigenous women are much more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group of women in our society.

It a tough history to listen to, shameful and brutal. Especially when you hear about the whole residential school debacle from people (like Wanda, and another guest, a Cree woman from Saskatchewan named Eva) who survived it.

The continuous generational progression was fractured for at least 100 years. Traditions and stories and even languages were lost. Linda spoke of systemic racism that did nothing but alienate and destroy a culture. It was a very heavy evening, to put it mildly.

I was thinking of the concept of systemic racism, all the various systems involved in making integration virtually impossible for indigenous people when I came upon a story the next day that was in the news - the sad (pathetic, really) story of the first nations man and his grand daughter who tried to open an account for her at a BMO in Vancouver and who ended up being handcuffed on the street outside the bank. And then the subsequent defending of police actions by the Vancouver Chief of Police.

Helen had asked Linda when this systemic racism had begun and Linda replied, "As soon the ink had dried on the treaties."

And the beat goes on.

The next week I spoke with the girls about what Wanda and Linda and Eva had talked about the week before. I asked if they would share any thoughts or experiences they have of prejudice, either because they are First Nations or because they are girls.

The writing the girls do when given such prompts will eventually, with some editing, become the script for our performance piece titled The Road, which we will be presenting this spring at various venues around Calgary.

Here is one response I received from one of the girls this week. Of course, I never know what their life experiences have been, or how much they are willing to share, but this piece I guarantee will make the final edit:

The fear of being forgotten with all the other women and girls, left behind under water in a garbage bag because to most people we're not human we're just another piece of trash . . .

I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's difficult but important work.

And so we carry on.

Heading Into 2020

Written by Eugene Stickland - December 30, 2019

We are living in an interesting time, which as you may know is a curse in China, as when they say "May you live in interesting times." In many ways, the world seems out of joint. The economy is perilous in Alberta and beyond, the climate is both fragile and volatile, many of our leaders are reviled, not revered. And on it goes.

We may sing of "Joy to the world," but joy - and faith and hope and peace and love - all seem in short supply. I've talked to so many people since Christmas who tell me the only good thing they have to say about Christmas is that they survived it. They endured it. It was a grim, bloodless experience.

I think most of us can relate to these sentiments. I know I can. It's a dark time, deep in the dead of winter. The days are short, the nights long. How can we manage to rise about this and find true happiness?

The people I know, the friends I have who find this to be a tough time of the year would seem, on the surface, to have little to complain about. They all live in nice places, they drive nice cars, they have money in the bank. In short, they are safe. There are no real threats to their way of life.

Yet as we all know, depression and other mental problems can strike anyone at any time, regardless of their circumstances. No amount of money, no architecture no matter how vast and ornate, no set of wheels can keep it away if it sets you in its sites.

I try to imagine just how it is for some of the Stardale girls at this time of year. I think my own sadness probably arises from my memories of magical Christmases when I was young. But that was so long ago. My parents have both passed away, as well as my brothers. I have sister far away and my daughter is in another country. It feels so empty that I don't even try.

But I wonder if some of our girls ever had a good Christmas at any time in their young lives. Some of them survive in very dysfunctional family situations. Many of their parents are survivors of the residential school debacle. And the sad assumption that we can make in this country: because they are First Nations we can assume they live in, or at least not far from, poverty.

These thoughts propel me forward into a new year. I'm sure I speak for Helen and all of the wonderful women who work at Stardale when I say this cycle must be broken. We must do what we can to help shape a better future for these girls and their families.

In the immortal words of playwright Arthur Miller, "attention must be paid."

And so I head into 2020 with renewed energy and strength to help these girls tell their stories, with the hope and prayer that someone is listening, and that we will help make a difference in our world.

Happy New Year.

How We Work

Written by Eugene Stickland - December 13, 2019

In generating a collective script for performance with the Stardale girls, perhaps the most delicate part is creating a comfortable and safe environment where they feel they can share their thoughts and stories. I'm only too aware that writing is not a positive activity for everyone - for some it can be terrifying or even impossible. I never put any pressure on the girls to come up with the goods. I guess my philosophy is that it will happen if and when it's meant to happen. Gentle encouragement only.

We know what our subject area is. In the case of our current project, The Road, we are creating some kind of response to the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which is titled "Reclaiming Power and Place."

At the beginning of each of our sessions, I speak about some aspect of the piece we are creating in order to get the girls thinking imaginatively of how life has been and how it is now for indigenous women and girls. We had a quick look of how life was hundreds, even thousands of years ago. We spoke about how we feel when someone in our life dies or disappears from our life for one reason or other. We will return to these themes when we resume work in the new year.

From our larger discussion, the girls break into small groups to write down their thoughts and feelings and observations. They are given index cards and coloured markers. My direction to them is to write down whatever comes to mind. If they can't think of anything, then they can draw a picture. Under no circumstances do I want them to sit and torture themselves with this. The larger goal for the evening, in my mind at least, is for everyone to have a pleasant time.

After an hour we come back to the circle together. If any of the girls have written something that they particularly feel like sharing, they are invited to read out what they have written. Given that we are writing about people who are missing or who have died, this can be a very emotional experience, but we like to think it would be cathartic for the girls who share in this manner. It's possible that in some cases, they may not have anyone else in their lives with whom they can share in this manner.

Finally, I gather all the cards. The girls don't put their name on any of their work, thus ensuring a certain degree of anonymity. Even if what they share is extremely personal, it goes into the script as just another part of the collective creation. It's entirely possible that in performance, a girl will never even have the opportunity to say the words she has written herself.

In this way, the girls create one unified voice to speak of their experience as young, mostly urban, First Nations girls. From the many comes one.

It is a voice we all need to listen to.

From The Inside Outward

Written by Eugene Stickland - December 2, 2019

Helen reminds me that our current work with the girls on The Road project is actually the fourth time we have all worked together: first, we created the full version of Committing, and then the scaled down version titled Committing to our Futures; finally, last year we created the Make Believer Project. And now, The Road.

I'm not sure what prepared me to oversee such projects. Most if not all of my experience of leading writing workshops and creating collective theatre has involved only adults. The Stardale girls are still very young, anywhere from twelve to seventeen. They are, as the expression goes, just coming of age. With that comes an increasing awareness of the world around them. Surely that is a common aspect of adolescence that we all have gone through. And yet, to express that awareness in words is never easy, and as we all know, teenagers can be quite reticent at times.

So how do we do this? How do we work?

Typically, we begin the evening in a circle and I talk a little about one particular aspect of the current project. For example, with the Make Believer Project, this basically fell into two broad categories: what do you want, what do you dream of; and what do worry will prevent you from realizing what you want and fulfilling your dreams?

The Road is in its largest sense meant to be a reaction to the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which is titled "Reclaiming Power and Place." This is obviously a very charged and political subject. It's also an area that the girls really know nothing about.

As I mentioned in the last blog, it's not my goal to traumatize these girls with the horrible truths that came to light as a result of the inquiry. I have taken some of what I feel are the important aspects of the report and am asking the girls how these things make them feel.

For example, although they may never have had someone go missing from their lives in the way that was revealed in the inquiry, is it possible that at sometime in their young lives they lost a friend whose family suddenly moved away?

And how does that make them feel? How does it make any of us feel?

Is it possible that they have lost a grandmother or grandfather through natural causes? And how does that make them feel? One girl last week shared with us the feelings she had when her grandfather died. It was very emotional and I hope cathartic. Everyone there could relate to what she was feeling. Along with the tears, there were lots of supportive hugs.

I have a card with that story written on it. I have many cards. Some of them would break your heart.

In creating such work, we like to move from the specific to the universal, from the inside outward. To make a broader statement about Stardale's reaction to the inquiry, and to show our support for our indigenous sisters, will be left to me, which I will do mainly through the editing and arrangement of the girls' words, with maybe a little added narration. As far as possible I try to work with the words the girls provide themselves.

In my next blog, I will share some of the words and images the girls have written thus far . . . without revealing too much, because after all we hope you will come and see this work for yourselves when we present it in the spring.

A Writing Exercise

Written by Eugene Stickland - November 21, 2019

After a break, I was back with the Stardale girls last night for another writing session for our 2020 performance project, The Road. As we hadn't worked together for a while, I had prepared a rather safe plan, a descriptive writing exercise to gather some more imagery about the road, or path, or city streets the girls find themselves on.

But as I sat listening to Helen and the girls talking in their circle, I had time to reflect on the past week, during which time four people in my life passed away. It's a tough reality about getting older, more and more people will die, but four in a week seems a little excessive. And then that made me wonder just how much death these young girls had experienced in their brief lives.

What we are setting out to explore is the effect of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Commission's findings on our girls' lives. I was thinking how, sadly, we can get used to that language - Missing and Murdered - and not feel the full impact of the sorrow and hurt that goes along with that. I understand that in a political sense there is justifiably outrage as well, but in working with these girls I can only ask that they share their personal experiences and hardly expect them to speak to a broader societal perspective.

And so, death - the preferred field for writers of all ages and cultures to dig their shovels into. While still in the circle we spoke of loss, of how it feels to lose a friend who suddenly moves away, or how we feel when a loved one actually dies. I spoke of my own experience last week, how it made me feel, and then asked them to share their own thoughts and experiences on paper.

It's a tough thing to ask of these girls, and so as always I told them that if they didn't have any such experience or just didn't feel like going there to draw a picture or listen to music of whatever they felt like doing. It's never my desire to traumatize anyone.

And so off they went to their various tables in the space we meet at, and wasn't I pleasantly surprised to see most of them actually writing, filling in some cases card after card with their brightly-coloured markers? I had mentioned that when we lose someone, when we are grieving, and maybe don't really have anyone we can talk to, that writing can often be very therapeutic and comforting. I think we saw some of that last night.

When the girls came back to the circle, one brave soul read out what she had written. The first part of it was about losing her grandfather who had had Alzheimer's at the end of his life. Young as she was, she still wrestled with the fact that there was no closure for her, he was simply lost to her. When she finished, there were tears and many hugs. And it hit home not just to me but to all of us how terrible for someone to go missing and not to have the chance to say good bye, clear the air, make up from a fight, say "I love you" or whatever the case may be.

It's hard work. It's deep and it's emotional. But come the spring, these girls will stand on a stage somewhere with a powerful and eloquent message to deliver.

Looking Down the Road to the Past

Written by Eugene Stickland - November 3, 2019

Blog #3

Helen McPhaden and I met this summer to discuss creating a new performance piece with the girls, for them to perform at various locations around Calgary as we have done in the past with Committing and The Make Believer Project.

The timing of our meeting was just after the Commission on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women had released its report, so that was certainly on our minds when we sat down to discuss a new project.

As we all know, sadly, one important element of the whole messed up situation is the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. The big question for Helen and me is what exactly do the Stardale girls make of that situation? How does it make them feel? What would they have to say about it that I could help shape into a performance piece?

The tricky part is, it's a very delicate subject and you have to be sensitive to the girls and find a way to talk about such painful realities in a way that won't leave them traumatized. You need to create a larger platform for the story to be told in, to provide a larger context, so in that regard we settled on the idea of The Road, used as it often is as a metaphor for life, which may at some point encompass the Highway of Tears.

With this wider focus, we hope to be able to explore the girls' sense of history of their people - where they came from, how they lived, problems they have faced; then the present - what is the road (or city street) they now find themselves on like; and then the future - what kind of road do they envision for themselves as they grow older, and for their children and grandchildren.

Here's the thing that I hadn't thought about when we began this, and I suppose a reality that is generational. Because I grew up in the pre-digital world, I can envision a time when things were very different than they are now. I'm what's known as a digital immigrant.

Not so for the girls. They are digital natives, so to speak. They don't really know any other way of life or of interacting with the world around them. So, I asked them to imagine a world that has none of the things that we take for granted. Take away the building we were working in, and with-it electricity and heat and plumbing and the chairs we were sitting on and everything else.

This they could do, by and large. But then I asked them what they would do, how they would occupy their time in this natural world, and that became a little more difficult to envision. No smart phones, no tablets, no iTunes or Spotify, no Netflix, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat - none of what we all take for granted now and spend most of our time engaged with. What then?

There were a lot of blanks drawn on that one. Suddenly the world seemed like a big vacuum with nothing in it. Nothing they were used to, nothing that mattered to them, nothing they could really talk about. It's probably an interesting exercise for anyone these days: how would you spend your time without and of these things we are all now so terribly addicted to?

So, little by little we will creep forward in time. When I think they are ready to learn more about the Highway of Tears and share their feelings about it, we will go there, and it will be an important part of our journey down the road and an important element of our performance piece.

Of course, in creating a piece like this, it's all about the journey, after all.

Committing Again

Written by Eugene Stickland - October 14, 2019

On October 11, three of the Stardale girls (Nicole, Kris and Brook) and I performed our presentation piece, titled Committing, at the beautiful central library in Calgary.

Committing was first developed at Stardale in 2013. Director Helen MacPhaden had become alarmed at the statistics being released at the time pointing to the fact that where was a real suicide crisis among First Nations youth. She thought that developing a piece exploring the subject could be beneficial in terms of creating awareness and helping to foster some discussion about causes and possible solutions. She asked me to facilitate this process and that was my introduction to the Stardale girls' program.

It was, to put it mildly, an unusual process. Imagine a room of teenage girls, about twenty-five of them between eleven and seventeen, suddenly in the presence of a much older white man who's asking them how they feel about suicide. It took some doing to get them to open up and even say "hi" to me, let alone share their thoughts on such a personal and emotional subject.

Not long after we started, Helen received an invitation to present our "play" to hundreds (even thousands given an extended webinar audience) of professionals and policy makers in Edmonton. We had about ten words on paper at that point. I began to develop a twitch in my left eye and was seriously questioning my decision ever to go into the theatre.

But we soldiered on. Eventually I gained the girls' trust and they began to open up and describe their experiences (for example, one girl said one night, "I hung myself the other night") and slowly but surely a script emerged. As far as possible, I tried to use only the girls' words in the text, but I may have added a few bits as needed. We were blessed to have the multi-talented Genevieve Pare work with us and help finalize the script and then direct the girls at our one and only performance in Edmonton. (Others had been booked in Calgary, but it was the time of the flood and in this case, the show did not go on.)

We had twenty-five girls on stage in Edmonton. It was a recipe for disaster but the theater gods were smiling on us and we pulled through. And received an enthusiastic standing ovation for our troubles.

In my mind, there was no way we could hope to duplicate that success, so a few years later, Helen and eight girls and I revisited the script and came up with a pared down version for three girls and a narrator. The way things have gone, that narrator is usually me.

And so that's what we presented at the library.

It was a small audience - they often are when we perform this piece. And yet, whenever we are invited, Helen jumps on the occasion to present the play. She and I are of the same mind on this, I guess. You never know who might be listening, and you never know if hearing this piece might help change the mind of a vulnerable young person who has been thinking of taking her own life.

If one person is listening, then it's all worth while.

Stardale Update

Written by Eugene Stickland - September 30, 2019

I am back working with the girls of the Stardale Women's Group this year. We are developing a performance piece titled "The Road" which came about following a conversation between Helen McPhaden and myself this summer. We had gotten together, as usual at Caffe Beano, shortly after the findings of the Commission into the Inquiry of Missing and Indigenous Women. I was reminded of the Highway of Tears, about which a friend of mine wrote a play a number of years ago. I thought the idea of the road, as metaphor of our girls' lives, as well as that of the history, present and future of their First Nations could lead to an interesting and compelling presentation. And so off we go!

This is the third time I have worked with the girls. (By "the girls," I mean the participants of the Stardale program generally. The girls I first worked with six years ago have moved on and are young women now, though there is some continuity year to year. None of the girls I worked with the first time out are in this year's batch.)

Helen hired me six years ago to create some kind of performance piece examining the issue of youth suicide in First Nations communities. It will probably come as no surprise that the instances of suicide among First Nations youth are markedly higher than in any other community in Canada.

Stardale had been invited to present this piece (whatever it would be) to about 400 policy makers and "experts" in the area at a conference in Edmonton. The room was booked, the audience (an influential one at that) would be there. The only thing we didn't have was something to present and that's where I came in. Helen invited me for coffee at Caffe Beano.

"So I need you to get the girls' thoughts on suicide and from there write a presentation piece that we can do," she likely said.

"OK . . .how many girls are there?"

"25."

"25. Gee, that's a lot. Do they have any acting experience?"

"No."

"How old are they?"

"Between ten and seventeen."

A wiser man than I might have walked away, but I could sense Helen's sincerity and who knows, if we could come up with something that might shine some greater awareness on this situation, maybe even help save a few lives down the road, then it would obviously be worth while.

It was tough sledding, at first. The girls didn't know me. There are very few men involved with Stardale, and what am I if not a white man? A very tall one at that. Some of them really didn't know what to make of me.

Somehow, we got something down on paper. I tried as far as possible to use only the words the girls gave me. We hired a good young theatre maker named Genevieve Pare to direct the piece, and thanks to her good efforts we were able to put together a final script. It was called Committing.

Twenty-five First Nations girls on stage at the same time, right there in flesh and blood, speaking to an audience of over four hundred people who had been talking about them and their problems all morning - it was a very strong statement.

We have been invited to present this piece on many occasions since that day in Edmonton six years ago. A few years ago, Helen and I and several of the girls got together and pared it down to be presented by 3 girls and a narrator (i.e., me).

As I write these words, we are preparing, while in the middle of a snow storm, to present this smaller version of the script at the "Orange Shirt Day" activities in Calgary, "an event that started in 2013 . . . designed to educate and promote awareness about the Indian residential school system and the impact this system had on indigenous communities for more than a century in Canada, and still does today."

Their Motto: Every child matters.

That might well be the motto of the Stardale groups as well.

Eugenius 1 and the story journey begins.


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