TORONTO — Jayli Wolf was huddled with her boyfriend under the harsh light of streetlights outside a Toronto storage unit the night she promised the couple would turn their lives around.
Homeless, penniless and covered in bed bug bites from a housing complex they fled, Wolf looked up at the sky as it started to rain.
“It won’t happen again,” she recalls. “We will never be this low.”
It’s a moment she remembers vividly, even though it sometimes feels like an eternity.
Wolf has lived many lives. Her current one is a singer-songwriter whose searing reflection on her family’s roots earned her a nomination for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year at the Juno Awards this weekend.
His haunting 2021 EP “Wild Whisper” delves into the murky abyss of his past with dark, poetic stories that collide with heavy electronic beats.
On the album’s signature track, “Child of the Government,” she sings about her father, who was among the thousands of Indigenous children who were taken from their families and placed in foster care during the 60s.
“My father’s blood is mine,” she purrs on the track. “His story beats in me.”
Years before she knew who her father was, Wolf grew up in the small town of Creston, British Columbia, the daughter of a teenage mother. They lived with his grandparents and extended family in a busy trailer as devout Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Until the age of about seven, Wolf believed his lineage was Mexican on his estranged father’s side. His ancestry was scrambled by the ’60s scoop, so records were hard to find. It took finding his biological mother to learn that he was Anishinaabe and Cree.
The story quickly spread through Wolf’s small community and back to his Danish mother, who did her best to explain a culture she didn’t really understand.
As a teenager, Wolf struggled with the concepts of his religious upbringing and its strict rules. She hid her bisexuality from her elders to avoid the consequences of shame.
In early adulthood, Wolf was frustrated, lost, and seeking escape from what she calls “the doomsday cult.” She found a kindred spirit in Hayden Wolf, a member of a nearby community of Jehovah’s Witnesses who shared her love for music. They later took on the same last name when they started a relationship.
The couple pledged to break free from their religious upbringing with the help of a parent.
“We had each other as a support system,” Hayden recalls.
“The suicide rate of people who leave religion is so high, because they have absolutely no one – they are completely kicked out of family and friends. … So having each other was huge .”
After Jayli Wolf won a songwriting competition in 2013, the pair took a break in Toronto to pursue music careers, eventually forming folk and electronic duo Once a Tree.
Wolf began using his connections in the local Native community to learn about film and television auditions, which landed him a recurring role on the APTN television series “Mohawk Girls.”
Rock bottom arrived after the show wrapped its final season in 2016. The musical couple lived in what Wolf describes as dire conditions in community housing in Toronto. They decided it was better to be on the streets than to stay 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 can never allow this to happen.”
While playing small television roles, Wolf continued to write music that explored her father’s story and her efforts to reclaim her Indigenous culture. None of the songs were originally intended for the public.
“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 began sharing the music with a small group of people close 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” which brought the vivid lyrics to life. It has attracted over a million views on YouTube.
By last fall, Wolf’s music had gained enough momentum to rival her burgeoning television and film career, which forced her to choose a path. There was no doubt that it would be the music rather than the acting.
“I’m at that point in my life where I feel like I need to ground myself in who I really am – and I need to stop pretending to be someone else for a while,” she says.
“Let’s do it – find out who Jayli is.”
Wolf says that purpose is tangled in unanswered questions about her Indigeneity, the experiences of her religious past, and all the traumas that have shaped who she is today.
The title of his EP “Wild Whisper” encapsulates some of these feelings as it alludes to his “wild nature” while suggesting that his whisper is just a brewing storm.
“It’s not me screaming yet,” she adds.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 9, 2022.