Stardale”s drumming group at an open rehearsal. PHOTO: Courtesy of Helen McPhaden

Living in northeastern Saskatchewan, Helen McPhaden saw firsthand the need to support Indigenous women, which is why she founded the Stardale Women’s Group. But her work did not stop there—she moved the organization to Calgary and continues to address racism and inequality through its influential film projects.

Although McPhaden is not of Indigenous descent herself, she was born and raised in the Treaty Six area of Saskatchewan, and found herself immersed in Indigenous culture. 

“Our house was a revolving door with many people, and particularly First Nations people. And when you look at racism, that was something that was taken off the table in my family,” says McPhaden. “Everybody was to be treated equal. Everyone was to be respected.”

She took that mindset into her adult years when she worked with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice. McPhaden’s job took her to northern communities to research and report on family violence, particularly affecting women. During this time, she was contracted by the federal government to do a needs assessment of the women in northeastern Saskatchewan.

“They wanted to see those women change their behaviors [and] change their outlook on life, to break the cycles of continually working from a government support system.”

The findings of the project revealed what McPhaden already knew: it was Indigenous women who lacked support. With this focus in mind, McPhaden joined forces with Jackie Nippy and Jacqueline Hunt in 1997 to create Stardale Women’s Group in Star City, Sask. 

The origin of Stardale 

The group was created to support Indigenous girls and women through educational programs working with the Stardale model built on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of life. They also support the Indigenous population through community action to create a more inclusive space and raise public awareness to break down stereotypes and bias.  

In 2006, McPhaden moved Stardale to Calgary in order to have more access to supports and resources. Studying in Calgary as a young adult, McPhaden knew the city and had built connections already.

Helen McPhaden, founder of the Stardale Women’s group PHOTO: Courtesy of Helen McPhaden

“Because I was familiar with Calgary and Treaty 7, we were outreaching a fair amount here,” says McPhaden. “It was decided that I would then relocate and move Stardale completely to Calgary because we did not have the supports we needed in a small community in Saskatchewan.” 

Tammy Scott-Willerth has been volunteering with Stardale for more than five years. She first decided to volunteer after meeting McPhaden at the Calgary Stampede. Scott-Willerth has a similar background to McPhaden, having grown up in Saskatchewan where she witnessed a lot of pain and suffering passed on to the Indigenous people in her hometown of Prince Albert. 

“I think that a lot of the things that they do through the different projects are just a really great voice for the community to understand. And begin to really think about what true reconciliation means,” says Scott-Willerth. “Acknowledging all of this that’s happened to them in their history.”

Creating films for change

Stardale finds a voice in their films by using the medium to talk about issues commonly faced by the Indigenous women who call Calgary home.  

The Road, a film released by Stardale in 2020, focuses on the missing and murdered women on the Yellowhead Highway. It was originally to be a stage production; however, the decision was made to film it due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This topic was an important one for McPhaden to cover. 

“The public, they’re talking about it now. I knew about it 40 years ago, at least. It’s common knowledge. I’ve had family and friends that have gone missing.” 

Winning awards at the Montreal Independent Film Festival and the Canada Shorts Film Festival in 2020, The Road was a success that portrayed important issues to both McPhaden and the Indigenous community. This success paved the way for Stardale’s next film, Shadows in Time. This time, the topic was systemic racism. 

“It goes back to George Floyd, the American gentleman that was murdered by a policeman. That just brought up a whole bunch of anger again,” says McPhaden. “When I started to reflect, everything that we work on at Stardale, every program, every project within the program, there’s always discussion on racism, always.” 

Shadows in Time had its premiere on Nov. 19, 2021, at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts. The film, which stars the girls and young women of Stardale, was based on their own experiences dealing with sexism and racism. 

Looking forward to the future

McPhaden wants Stardale to not only keep up the kind of programming they have done thus far but continue to make it stronger. This is a goal tasked to Natasha Kelly, Stardale’s program coordinator since October 2021. She oversees the organizing of volunteers and planning events such as their homework club. 

Kelly believes that Stardale motivates the next generation to achieve more than what they believe is possible, which creates a ripple effect on the community.

“With the teenagers that we support, I can see how that affects their families. And just even having that safe space for these girls is so important in their life growth,” says Kelly.

McPhaden would also like to continue informing and educating the public on Indigenous people with an emphasis on social justice issues. 

“That’s something we’ve always done in order to initiate healing. You have to look at the social justice issues. Because, without that, we’re not going to have change. And I would love to see change.”

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