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Healing through story: sqilx’w author unveils harrowing-but-hopeful memoir

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Jenelle Brewer, sqilx’w from nq’maplqs in her home community of Okanagan Indian Band, shares her memoir. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

Content warning: This story contains content about human trafficking, living in kinship with addictions, and violence against sqilx’w (Indigenous) women and children. Please read with deep care for your well-being. 

Sunlight fills a frigid winter sky over nq’maplqs as Jenelle Brewer sits down and begins talking about her life story, as detailed in her new book. 

The syilx sqilx’w author — also a successful businesswoman and devoted mother — is preparing to release a memoir titled RELEASING JEZEBEL: Embracing the Lioness Within.

The book, Jenelle’s first, vulnerably delves into trauma she’s experienced in her life with an undercurrent of courage, hope and healing.

“I grew up with a pretty picture-perfect life. I grew up on a ranch with my dog. I had a lot of opportunities with figure skating and all kinds of sports,” says Jenelle.

“But I was also living in this dark side.”

RELEASING JEZEBEL: Embracing the Lioness Within is set to be released on April 1 during a launch event in “Vernon.” For the title, she was inspired by a nickname she was given in high school — Jezebel — which empowered her and gave her confidence.

That confidence boost was needed during the writing process, as she says this book was one of the most difficult things she’s worked on in her adult life. 

“It’s really hard to be vulnerable and expose myself,” she says.

“My life experiences have kept me from being vulnerable. So doing this was a big step in my healing journey, being able to overcome that fear.”

But Jenelle shares that she is ready and has garnered the courage to speak out for the love and protection of women and children. 

“I think that comes from that feeling of being helpless as a child, where I just grew up, and I didn’t want to be helpless anymore,” says Jenelle.

“The common thread throughout my story is about how I tried to protect others. So even while writing my book, I tried to think of ways to protect people.”

Sharing hard truths

For sqilx’w kin, the impacts of Canada’s residential “schools” can look different from family to family. While beautiful work is happening in communities to reawaken and live culture loudly, colonial disruptions still carry shame. 

As a child, Jenelle endured years of violence and abuse in the aftermath of the so-called residential “schools.” In her later childhood, she was exploited by a gang and forced into human trafficking. 

Jenelle delves into this story within her memoir. She shares that growing up and experiencing abuse really impacted her self-worth, which is where her kinship with addictions took form.

“My friends who knew me would always talk about how confident I was as a teenager, but really I had this underlying monster chewing away at my self-worth, and people couldn’t see that from the outside. I hid my abuse from everybody,” she says.

“I don’t know if it was fear or what it was, but I just hid it. And I started drinking at 14, and that progressed to my cocaine addiction and eventually to heroin addiction.”

Jenelle says when she was in that space of low self-worth, she ended up with a boyfriend who was so abusive that she had to escape by fleeing to a new city. 

Although it was supposed to be a new start — still living with addiction and unresolved pain — Jenelle started dating a much older man who then began to exploit her, forcing her into prostitution. The man was eventually imprisoned, but the exploitation continued when she was taken in by a gang who continued to traffic her.

She says it wasn’t until she found herself at rock bottom, in a state of near-death, that she decided to make the decision that would save her life. 

The courage to walk through the door of hope

“So, for some addicts like myself, you come to a point where you’re either going to die or live. And I noticed I was at death’s door, laying in city cells,” she says.

As Jenelle lay in city cells, her mind began to turn; she had spent an unknown amount of days not eating, sleeping, or drinking. Her health was quickly deteriorating. 

“I laid there and just imagined this door. I knew I either had to walk through it or walk away from it. And I knew if I didn’t walk through it, I was going to die,” she says, and after a few other events occurred in the following week, she knew it was time to seek treatment. 

“I was at the walk-in clinic, and none of the doctors would see me except this one, he was like, ‘I’ll deal with her,’ so he came in and saw me, and he got me on the path to recovery. Now he’s in my book’s dedications,” she says with a smile on her face. 

“It’s just that human touch; it just reached me. And it was just like that piece of humanity in a world where people don’t treat you like you’re human.”

Her doctor then put her on a medical plan to support her recovery. Four years ago, Jenelle was sitting in that doctor’s office, thanking him and asking him if he ever thought she’d be where she is now: a successful businesswoman, mother, and rising public figure. 

“He laughed and was like, ‘no,’ and that’s what I appreciate about him — he’s very straightforward, and we had a good laugh about it,” she says. 

The process

While writing her book, Jenelle said it was incredibly important to be mindful of her mental health and wellness. And her process took form with the support of her coach, mentors and family. 

“I have a family that has supported me and accepted me, even after all my trials and tribulations and disappointments and everything that I’ve put them through, they’ve stood by me,” she says.

“And I appreciate all the trust my community has in me, from being elected to band council to all the positions I’ve had, it’s all because of the trust that people have given me and my progression.” 

And for aspiring writers, Jenelle says to keep in touch with your ‘tops,’ meaning the limit of your mental and emotional wellness capacity, particularly for trauma survivors. 

“I think for trauma survivors recognizing when you’re hitting your tops because there’s a lot of times when I was writing where I hit that top, and either the trauma was so great, or just the outside pressures of the world were,” she shares. 

“I had to go into almost a trance where I had to go back in time, like in a meditative state, and I had to relive those memories. And it was so painful. And there were just times when I’d just be crying.”

And Jenelle welcomed the tears.

“And I’m so thankful because I didn’t cry a lot when I was living on the streets and addicted. And I decided to let myself cry about two years ago. And, it’s still hard, it’s still uncomfortable,” she says. 

It was only a few years ago Jenelle decided to sink into her vulnerability and allow herself to feel her way through her emotions. 

“Being able to cry when I wrote my book was so healing. Letting myself feel sad, or feel that loss and grieving,” she says. 

“What I lost is childhood, a loss of teenage life, you know, you see other kids live how they live, and you’re not living that life because you have a secret. So it was just, it was a loss. And for the first time in my life, I really grieved those losses.”

But her story is far from over. Jenelle plans to write more books in the coming years and continue to pour out hope and love for her people and all those who can find parts of themselves in her story. 

“A big part of the healing process is letting people know they’re not alone,” says Jenelle.

You can download the first chapter of Jenelle’s book RELEASING JEZEBEL: Embracing the Lioness Within now and also pre-order your book here. 

If you need support around trafficking or abuse please reach out to The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline, which operates 24/7, at 1-833-900-1010 or use the chat function on the website. If you are feeling distressed you may also reach out to the Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

The post Healing through story: sqilx’w author unveils harrowing-but-hopeful memoir appeared first on IndigiNews.

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Stó:lō confirms 158 children’s deaths at four institutions as investigation reveals rampant neglect, abuse

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People wearing orange shirts walk past the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in “MIssion” on Sept. 21. Photo by Cara McKenna

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains graphic details about residential “schools” that many will find distressing or triggering. Please look after your spirit and read with care.

After confirming the deaths of 158 Indigenous children at four government and church-run institutions in the “Fraser Valley,” researchers with Stó:lō Nation say they want to find the individuals who were responsible.

Following a two-year investigation, questions still remain about how many more children lost their lives while in forced custody — and about the adults responsible for their care — at the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, Coqualeetza Industrial Institute, All Hallows School or Coqualeetza Indian Hospital.

However, the team from Stó:lō says both Oblates of Mary Immaculate and “Canada” have blocked access to records which could help their efforts to identify what actions, or inactions, led to children’s deaths and who perpetrated the horrific abuses detailed by survivors.

“What we learned from speaking with only a handful of survivors is devastatingly traumatic and sad,” said David Schaepe, an archaeologist for Stó:lō who is leading the research project, on Thursday.

“Who perpetrated these atrocities? This is one of our core questions and remains a focus of our ongoing work.”

Research lead David Schaepe, left, and Chief David Jimmie (Lenéx wí:ót) present their findings in community on Sept. 21. Photo by Cara McKenna

Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh

On Thursday afternoon, Schaepe, along with another researcher and two Stó:lō chiefs, sat under a large tent beside the former St. Mary’s Residential School.

Located on the Stó:lō village site of Pekw’Xe:yles, where missionaries descended after the community was decimated by smallpox, the red brick building now looms over the lush greenery of the land.

The former institution, now utilized as a preschool, was the longest-running residential “school” in the province and only closed its doors in 1984 after 121 total years of operation, having moved twice during that time.

It still holds many dark memories for survivors and unknowns for families of those who didn’t make it home.

The Stó:lō Nation Chiefs’ Council (SNCC) launched the Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh (Taking Care of Our Children) project in 2021 to try to find answers about the children who went missing from St. Mary’s and three other institutions that operated within their unceded territories.

The announcement this week represented the results of the first phase of their investigation and was delivered to survivors, their families, media and other guests.

Chief David Jimmie (Lenéx wí:ót), president of the SNCC, began by acknowledging the strength, resilience and perseverance of the survivors in attendance before handing the floor to the researchers who detailed the various aspects of their work.

“Our sharing of this work is necessary to support the healing of our survivors and our families to overcome the multi-generational traumas resulting from the residential school experience,” Jimmie said. 

“We’re also sharing our knowledge for the education of our communities and society at large, who need to understand what our survivors have understood for so long.”

Jimmie explained that the research project was launched by SNCC after hearing the news about evidence of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) and has involved various community partners.

The methodology of the work has included poring through thousands of records, utilizing ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and LiDAR scanning, genealogy research and recording oral histories from survivors.

“We know our children lost their lives, and these institutions were to blame,” Jimmie said. 

“We are working to account for our people: who they are, where they died and where they were buried. But the foundation question is why did this happen, and that question we put back to the governments, the churches, and the non-Indigenous society at large to answer and to account for their actions.”

Cutouts of orange shirts are taped on the windows of the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School, now utilized as a preschool. Photo by Cara McKenna

Researchers share horrific details

While ground scans have been part of the research thus far, only a small fraction of the grounds — between two and four per cent — have actually been searched, and so the team is not relying on this method but rather utilizing it as a contribution to a wider scope of work.

Jimmie said the team has worked on identifying any places where children may have been put to rest, including marked burial sites and investigating potential unmarked burial sites.

“We can also confirm having identified numerous potential unmarked burials including secretive burials, at least at the St. Mary’s old school grounds,” he said. 

“It is too premature in our work, and distracting to our efforts, to focus on the numbers of potential unmarked burials.”

Amber Kostuchenko, the project manager for Xyólhmet ye Syéwiqwélh, outlined the number of children’s deaths that she said have been confirmed as part of the project.

“We’ve received about half of the 70,000 relevant documents that we need to answer our questions,” she said.

“These records came from 27 different archives that were located in 47 different physical locations across Canada. Of those 35,000 documents we’ve only reviewed a small portion to date. Even so, we’ve already received detailed information about children who died.”

Kostuchenko said Stó:lō’s research has so far concluded a total of 158 children’s deaths, with the majority from illnesses. Children were known to have gotten sick with, and died from, tuberculosis and other diseases at high rates in residential “schools” because of poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, malnourishment and general neglect from the adults supervising them.

“We have carefully and rigorously analyzed the information we’ve gathered and we are confident in sharing numbers about the children who died while at these institutions,” Kostuchenko said.

At All Hallows School, she said, there were five deaths of girls who were reported to have died because of an illness. At the Coqualeetza residential “school,” the team has so far identified with certainty that 37 children died at, or because of their attendance —  with 25 reported to have died from illness and three from injuries recorded as “accidents.” The remaining nine have unknown causes of death.

“One child died because they were jumped on by another student, another child was reported to have hit their head against the bed under unknown circumstances,” said Kostuchenko, who was visibly shaken and paused to take a sip of water. “Another was reported to have broken their spine while jumping rope.”

At St. Mary’s, the team confirmed 20 “students” who died, with the youngest child being seven years old and the oldest being 18. Most were reported to have died from illness, while the remaining three had unknown causes of death.

“Lastly, I want to talk about Coqualeetza Indian Hospital,” she said. “Through our work of historical documents, we’ve so far identified, with certainty, 96 children who died at the Coqualeetza Indian Hospital.”

Of that, 79 were reported to have died from tuberculosis while seven were reported to have passed from a different illness such as pneumonia or cardiac arrest during surgeries. The remaining 10 have unknown causes of death, she said.

Schaepe said survivors shared many atrocities of their experiences at the four institutions, and as he shared some of the testimony, people in the audience were visibly rattled, and some cried, including one woman who loudly sobbed upon hearing the upsetting details. 

“We heard cases of children being killed, we heard of the secretive burial of children who died and the forced burial of children by other children,” Schaepe said.

“We learned of the secretive burial of babies. We were told that the St. Mary’s old school was characterized as a place of punishment and starvation, and the new school as a place of pedophilia.”

Children were exposed to disease, exploited for child labour and starved while they were institutionalized, and Schaepe’s voice shook as he spoke of children “having to choose between eating green, spoiled bologna or not eating at all.”

He then spoke of “rampant” sexual abuse that also took place at St. Mary’s — something that partially came to light in 2004 when former boys’ dormitory supervisor Gerald Moran was convicted of 12 counts of sexual abuse for offenses that took place about 40 years earlier. 

“We heard of terrible implications that need further work to further understand,” Schaepe explained, “including a story of firemen responding to a fire at the old St. Mary’s girls’ dormitory and finding the remains of fetuses in the walls and, as is being told in experiences in other institutions, that furnaces were used for cremation purposes.”

A memorial house post by Terry Horne stands outside of the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. Photo by Cara McKenna

OMI claim to have no documents: researcher

Jimmie said the team wants to know more about the operations of the institutions and has been seeking out information but has been blocked from accessing certain records.

Some of the documents so far received — which are still being analyzed — have come from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Royal BC Museum, provincial archives, the United Church and the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a Catholic order of missionary priests, operated the St. Mary’s “school” and more than 50 others across the country.

“When we’ve had direct conversations with their chief administrative officer, they claim they no longer have any documents relevant to our work,” Jimmie said.

“They also have not been willing to facilitate direct conversations with the oblate fathers who may have direct knowledge of the operations of St. Mary’s.”

Jimmie said this lack of support from OMI has been contrary to public announcements about wanting to support survivors and their communities, and called on them to reach out to establish a direct relationship.

Shaepe said continually being redirected by OMI brings up questions about which documents and other information they do have in their custody.

“And why would they make a decision about documents that they would hold in their administrative archives and their administrative files that may be of interest to us?” he asked.

“But they’re not providing us access to even review. I think one of the things OMI needs to do is sit down with us and give us access to what records they actually have so we can determine for ourselves.”

A written statement from Ken Thorson from OMI Lacombe Canada to IndigiNews said the order was “deeply saddened” by the news from Stó:lō and expressed regret for the oblates’ role.

He said “any relevant records” from St. Mary’s “would be housed at the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Archives Deschâtelets in Richelieu.”

“We have an ongoing working relationship with both facilities and have provided them with funding to support their responses to requests from Indigenous researchers,” he said.

“It is my understanding that RBCM has been in contact with Stó:lō Nation directly to initiate the process of sharing digital records with them.”

Further, Thorson said, there is only one living oblate remaining who worked at St. Mary’s.

“We have not received any meeting requests on his behalf and he would not likely be capable of accepting such a request due to his advanced health situation,” he said.

However, Schaepe insisted that there must be knowledge that was transferred within the OMI order that is relevant to their work.

“There’s no living connection to the operation of the St. Mary’s grounds, whether it was the old grounds or the new grounds?” he asked. 

“I think that’s another thing that they need to come forward and talk to us about. … At this point, they’ve not provided any connection to anybody, that history that knowledge basis should be, you know, a foundation for us gaining some additional information.”

A woman raises her hands to drummers who opened and closed the announcement on Sept. 21. Photo by Cara McKenna

Federal records also inaccessible

Meanwhile, Kostuchenko said she previously worked for the federal government doing residential “school” research, supporting settlement claims, but now cannot access these same archives.

“In my 14 years there I was one of hundreds of dedicated researchers who created a database that ultimately contained more than one million individual documents about these types of institutions all across Canada,” she said.

“These documents came from the Department of Indian Affairs files, from other federal departments, but also all of the religious organizations that were involved in running these institutions.”

Kostuchenko said this research involved noting “students” and staff members by name and recording information about child illnesses, deaths and sometimes abuse. She said having direct access to this archive would “vastly expedite” the team’s research, however they haven’t been able to.

IndigiNews reached out to the federal government for comment but did not receive a response before publication time. 

Stó:lō Tribal Council Grand Chief Doug Kelly said the work is only the beginning, as researchers expect to continue the project for years to come. Photo by Cara McKenna

‘There was no accountability. None. There was no justice.’

Stó:lō Tribal Council Grand Chief Doug Kelly said the research, which is just at the very beginning, represents “a journey to confirming the truth that we carry in our DNA.” 

“Our people are carrying incredible pain that was inflicted upon them by removal from their home, from their parents, their grandparents, their families, and being placed in residential schools,” he said.

“Where there was no oversight to keep those children safe. Where there was no oversight to ensure they were provided adequate food, warmth, shelter.”

He added that “there was no accountability. None. There was no justice.”

Cyril Pierre of Katzie First Nation, a survivor of St. Mary’s, said he feels that the preliminary results validate the experience he and others went through in residential “schools.”

“The hurt and pain the generations have faced is now coming to the surface, and this is a part of the truth that Canada must face,” he said in a statement.

“This is our truth. There is now justice for the Elders that have passed and the little baby ancestors that have been found. We are now able to properly give the babies that were found a send off in our sacred ways. 

“This is just the beginning of our process; we are far from a full pledge to healing as so many have been hurt. But this is the first step. A step into strengthening our relationships and building a better world for our future generations.”

Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line. The KUU-US Crisis Line Society also offers 24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll free at 1-800-588-8717.

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In photos: Dozens rally at B.C. Legislature to demand ‘Winnipeg’ landfill search

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People stand on the steps of the B.C. Legislature on Sept. 18. Photos by Mike Graeme

Content warning: This story contains details about “Canada’s” genocidal epidemic of MMIWG2S+. Please look after your spirit and read with care.

Dozens of people gathered at the B.C. Legislature on Monday as part of a country-wide day of action calling for a search of a “Winnipeg” landfill and other facilities across the country where MMIWG2S+ could be located.

The event in “Victoria” was one of numerous rallies held across “Canada” on Sept. 18 as part of a newly-declared Day of Action to Search the Landfills.

Though the current push is to have the “Manitoba” government support a search of the Prairie Green landfill — where the bodies of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are believed to be located — there are also calls to search the Brady Road landfill and any others that may contain the remains of missing Indigenous people given the extent of the MMIWG2S+ crisis.

At the events, people gathered in support of the families of Harris and Myran, who are believed to have been slain by a serial killer and left at the Prairie Green landfill north of “Winnipeg.”

“Indigenous women make up an alarming amount of homicides that are committed across Turtle Island,” said Wuskwi Sipihk woman Brandy Quill at the rally at the B.C. Legislature. “This lack of response from the government is continuing the cycle.”

Last month, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson said her government would not search the Prairie Green landfill, citing safety reasons because of toxic chemicals that could harm workers.

“They said it is unsafe [to search the landfill] due to toxic waste,” said Tsartlip woman Priscilla Omulo, who organized the rally at the B.C. Legislature. “Well, I would like to say that the harmful and fatal toxic waste is anti-Indigenous racism, and that’s the foundation of the injustice of the MMIWG2S and their families.”

Jeremy Skibicki was charged with first-degree murders of Harris, 39, and Myran, 26, and two other Indigenous women — Rebecca Contois, a member of O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, and an unidentified woman who Indigenous leaders are calling Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe “Buffalo Woman.” Skibicki’s trial is scheduled for next year.

MMIWG2S+ advocate Monique May, who is an organizer with the annual Stolen Sisters Memorial March, said landfills have been searched for bodies in the past.

“I can list the landfills in Canada that have been searched,” she said. “The only difference between those searches and what’s happening in Winnipeg is the colour of skin.”

Dealing with political leaders and the bureaucratic process of recovering the Indigenous women has been tiring for the families who are mourning their relatives. “Give us those hazmat suits, and we will train ourselves if you will not retrieve our women, because I am sick of words,” said Morgan Harris’s daughter, Cambria Harris, last month.

Harris met with federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree yesterday but walked out of the meeting, saying she felt disrespected and retraumatized when officials questioned the feasibility of the search. She expressed her view that political leaders aren’t taking the crisis seriously.

Dakota, a Cree, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Youth, and their stepfather Alex McCallum-Taylor, a Kwakwa̲ka̲’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth artist, performer, and cook, joined the rally at the B.C. Legislature on Sept. 18.

“It is time for action,” said May. “We need to come together. Genocide is happening on our land. We are losing people every day. No family should have to go to a landfill to pay respects to their loved ones. That is cruel and inhumane. Let’s bring our sisters home.”

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Ahead of Orange Shirt Day, WLFN powwow dancers don orange regalia as ‘symbol of resilience’

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Dancers showcase their orange regalia during a Speaking Our Truth Competition Pow Wow dance special on Sept 9. Photo by Dionne Phillips

Ahead of Orange Shirt Day, dancers at a Williams Lake powwow donned orange regalia to honour all the Indigenous children and families who have been impacted by residential “schools.”

The Orange Regalia Special took place as part of the second annual Speaking Our Truth Competition Pow Wow, which was hosted by Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) in T’exelc from Sept. 8 to 10.

The special was introduced in the powwow’s inaugural year in 2022 alongside various other dance categories for all ages. 

Addressing the crowd on the powwow’s second day, emcee Stan Isadore praised the group of dancers and their regalia.

“This colour that you see on the floor is a colour that is being honoured and represented as a symbol of resilience and a symbol of strength,” said Isadore.

“There are so many beautiful things that they will never take away from us, they can never take away from us.”

Dancers of all ages participated in the Orange Regalia special. Photo by Dionne Phillips

Orange Shirt Day — also recognized as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — takes place each year on Sept. 30. 

It began after Phyllis (Jack) Webstad shared her story of her new orange shirt being taken from her on her first day of residential “school” in the early 1970s. The Orange Shirt Society is a non-profit organization that started in Williams Lake in Secwépemc Territory. 

It’s through Webstad’s story that Orange Shirt Day came to be, taking place in September because it was around the time of year when children would historically be taken from their families and forced to attend residential “school.”

Kúkwpi7 Willie Sellars dances before the contest portion of the Orange Regalia special. Photo by Dionne Phillips

The Orange Regalia Special began with a solo dance from WLFN Kúkwpi7 Willie Sellars, as a drum beat pounded through the arbour, before the floor was opened to the rest of the dancers.

The group of about 30 dancers represented all ages — from young children in the Tiny Tot categories to Elders in the Golden Age categories. Various styles of dance were represented through this special as they all moved through the arbour during two songs. 

From the larger group, the judges then picked the top six to continue dancing for the second song with one winner being chosen at the end of the two songs. 

“And it’s evident here today, brothers and sisters, it’s evident here on the floor, you see all orange, you see the First Nations people with their language, their culture and every colour and design that they’re wearing is a story that stays with them for time immemorial,” Isadore said as applause filled the arbour for the dancers.

Isadore praised the dancers and their regalia as he told the crowd to witness, “the powerful colour of orange being honoured by powerful First Nations people.”

“We’re still here and we’re going to be here for many, many years to come,” Isadore said.

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