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Juno nominee Jayli Wolf risked it all to leave the past behind and find herself

TORONTO — Jayli Wolf was huddled with her boyfriend under the harsh glare of street lights outside a Toronto storage unit on the night she pledged the couple would turn their lives around.

Homeless, penniless and covered in bed bug bites from a housing complex they fled, Wolf looked to the sky as it began to pour.

“This is never going to happen again,” she recalls saying. “We will never be this low.'”

It’s a moment she remembers vividly, even if it sometimes feels like a lifetime ago.

Wolf has lived many lives. Her current one of her is as a singer-songwriter whose searing reflection on her family’s roots earned a contemporary Indigenous artist or group of the year nomination at the Juno Awards this weekend.

Her haunting 2021 EP “Wild Whisper” wades into the murky abyss of her past with darkly poetic stories that collide against heavy electronic beats.

On the album’s standout track, “Child of the Government,” she sings about her father who was among the thousands of Indigenous children who were removed from their families and placed in foster care during the ’60s Scoop.

“My father’s blood is mine,” she purrs on the track. “His story beats inside me.”

Years before she knew who her dad was, Wolf grew up in small-town Creston, BC, the daughter of a teen mom. They lived together with their grandparents and extended family in a tightly packed trailer as devoted to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Until she was about seven years old, Wolf believed her lineage was Mexican on her estranged father’s side. Her ancestry was scrambled by the ’60s Scoop, so documents were hard to come by. It took finding his biological mother from her to learn he was Anishinaabe and Cree.

The story quickly spread through Wolf’s small community and back to her Danish mother, who tried her best to explain a culture she didn’t really understand.

In her teens, Wolf was struggling with the concepts of her religious upbringing and its stringent rules. She kept her bisexuality secret from her elders to avoid the consequences of being shamed.

By early adulthood, Wolf was frustrated, lost and looking to escape what she refers to as “the doomsday cult.” She found a kindred spirit in Hayden Wolf, a member of a nearby Jehovah’s Witness community who shared her love for making music. They later took on the same last name when they began a relationship.

The couple pledged to break free of their religious upbringing with the help of a relative.

“We had each other as a support system,” Hayden remembered.

“The suicide rate of people who leave the religion is so high, because they have absolutely nobody — they’re completely cast out from their family and friends.… So us having each other was huge.”

After Jayli Wolf won a songwriting contest in 2013, the couple made a break for Toronto to pursue a music career, eventually forming the folk and electronic duo Once a Tree.

Wolf began using her connections in the local Indigenous community to learn about film and TV auditions, which landed her a recurring role on the APTN TV series “Mohawk Girls.”

Rock bottom came after the show wrapped its final season in 2016. The musician couple was living in what Wolf describes as dismal conditions in Toronto community housing. They decided being on the streets was better than staying indoors, even if it meant sitting in the rain.

“That was my turning point,” Wolf says of that night outside the storage unit. “I fought so hard. I was like, I cannot ever allow this to happen.”

While taking small TV roles, Wolf continued writing music that explored her father’s history and the efforts she was making to reclaim her Indigenous culture. None of the songs were meant for the public at first.

“I wrote it for my own healing,” she says.

“I needed to get these stories out, especially talking about the ’60s Scoop and my relationship with my dad.”

It wasn’t until Wolf started sharing the music with a small group of people closest to her that she saw the recordings in a new light.

In March 2021, she released a black-and-white music video for “Child of the Government” that brought the vivid lyrics to life. It’s drawn more than 1 million views on YouTube.

By last fall, Wolf’s music had gained enough momentum to rival her budding TV and film career, which forced her to choose a path. There was no question it would be music over acting.

“I’m at this place in my life where I feel like I need to ground in who I truly am — and I have to stop pretending to be anyone else for a while,” she says.

“Let’s do this — let’s figure out who Jayli is.”

Wolf says that purpose is tangled in unanswered questions about her Indigeneity, experiences from her religious past and all of the trauma that’s shaped who she is today.

Her EP’s title “Wild Whisper” encapsulates some of those feelings as it hints at her “wild nature” while suggesting that her whisper is merely a storm that’s brewing.

“It’s not me screaming yet,” she adds.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2022.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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