Indigenous 'girl empowerment' group struggles to keep doors open in Calgary

More than 30 Indigenous girls meet once a week in Calgary to build friendships, practise their culture and learn skills to help them develop into powerful young women — but that could change as the group searches for funding.

Stardale Women’s Group started in Melfort, Sask., in 1997 and was brought to Alberta in 2006

The Stardale Women's Group, which is made up of Indigenous girls between the ages of 10 and 17, meets once a week. The group was started by a social worker to help empower Indigenous women and keep them in school. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

More than 30 Indigenous girls meet once a week at a hall in northeast Calgary to have fun, build friendships, practise their culture and learn skills to help them develop into powerful young women.

The Stardale Women's Group was started In Melfort, Sask., in 1997 by social worker Helen McPhaden. She brought it to Calgary in 2006.

The program is for Indigenous girls between the ages of 10 and 17 who live in Calgary. The only requirement is they have to stay in school.

"Most of them have really struggled for various things that go on in their lives — maybe the families have moved about, maybe there's been separation from mom and dad and various partners coming and going. And so for them schooling is something they know that they have to be doing, but it's often difficult to get there because they're often held back," McPhaden said. 

The group is one of the few constants in some of these girls' lives and they look forward to coming every week.

Gemini Ironshirt, 16, said McPhaden, the volunteers and the other girls treat her like family.

"It gives me a sense of connection," said Gemini, who is from the Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta but currently lives in Calgary.

"We learn a lot about what it's like to be a woman: self-confidence, girl empowerment."

Finding funds

McPhaden is becoming increasingly concerned they won't have enough money to keep the doors open next year.

She said it's been tough trying to raise money during the downturn from both the private and public sectors. And every one of her grant proposals was turned down this year.

"So where do you go for funding, right?" she said.

McPhaden said that because Stardale helps Indigenous girls, people presume it automatically qualifies for a lot of government funding, but that is not the case.

In fact, she said, the non-profit hasn't been able to access any of the billions of federal grant money flowing out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to action.

"We've been operating our program for 22 years and it's immensely successful. I mean, if we didn't have this program in this city, what would the kids do?"

Sharing their stories

The girls are usually referred to Stardale from social services, agencies such as Hull Services or Wood's Homes, police or the school boards.

McPhaden said referrals also come from friends and family.

Brooke Strongeagle, 12, started coming last year after hearing so many good things from her older sister, who was attending.

"I think it's very valuable because everyone has their story and so here is like a safe environment and you can share your stories and not have to worry about it, and it's very heartwarming here," she said.

Social worker Helen McPhaden started the Stardale Women's Group in Melfort, Sask., in 1997. She brought the program to Calgary twelve years ago. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Gemini said she gets a chance to talk about some of the issues she faces at school.

"People think I'm Native so I'm going to do drugs, like weed and stuff," she said.

McPhaden said a lot of the girls struggle with anxiety and depression and they end up cutting themselves or attempting suicide. She believes providing a safe and nurturing environment is key.

The group starts off sitting in a circle, meditating on a positive word or behaviour, and sharing their thoughts on the topic of the night.

They then have dinner and spend the rest of the night focused on an activity.

On this particular night, a local artist taught them to make earrings.

"When they do something that's creative and they get a product at the end, they have self-respect, self-esteem, pride in something," said Ken Bourassa, an art educator who has been working with Stardale for the past few years.

"They have done something that looks good and they feel really good about that and we hope that they take that with them." 

Measures of success

This program was designed with the help of several Indigenous women who were involved in the education system, including superintendents, principals and consultants

They wanted it to include topics around bullying, violence and drugs as well as regalia, fashion and modelling.

The latter, said McPhaden, is meant to teach the girls how to present themselves and feel comfortable in their own bodies as they work toward becoming leaders and role models in the community.

Brooke Strongeagle,12, shows off a pair of earrings she made with the help of a local artist during the weekly group meeting. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

McPhaden said one way she measures the success of the program is in the number of girls graduating from her program and Grade 12.

"The most important thing is to keep the girls in school," she said.

Afterward, they go on to post-secondary institutions. Or they find steady work. Another way she measures success is seeing their confidence bloom.

"For instance, I have three girls taking drama this year, so they're putting themselves out there," she said.

McPhaden recently started a GoFundMe page and the girls are also eager to come up with ways to raise money.

They'll be selling boxed sets of cards they made during one of their art classes.

About the Author

Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.