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Group helps Indigenous women feel safe, learn of their culture

People who come to Orillia Native Women’s Group 'are often looking for who they are, looking for connections and looking for a sense of belonging'

When single mom, Lurleen Ashkewe, left her First Nation reserve to come to Orillia 10 years ago, she had no idea that her personal experience would transition into a role as mentor and teacher for other Indigenous women.

Ashkewe is a program coordinator at the Orillia Native Women’s Group (ONWG) in Orillia, a not-for-profit organization serving Indigenous women and their families. It’s where Ashkewe first learned about her culture and found a community of supportive friends.

“I didn’t know anything about my culture back then, I learned everything I know from here,” explained Ashkewe.

She added that she was able to relate to the other families and what they were going through – being single parents, having to go to food banks, and abusive relationships. “When I left my reserve, all that stayed there.”

The Orillia Native Women’s Group, founded in 1996 by a group of local Indigenous women, is committed to supporting the well-being of families and fostering a sense of community by providing opportunities for healing, sharing, and learning about Indigenous culture and traditions.

There are currently about 200 families participating with the ONWG and their Indigenous backgrounds represent a wide range of First Nations from throughout the province.

As a newcomer to Orillia, Ashkewe took part in some of the ONWG programs and said she immediately felt safe in the environment. She began volunteering with the organization and before long, was asked if she would be interested in applying for the CPNP (Canada Prenatal and Nutrition Program) coordinator position. She had previously trained as an early childhood educator but had not pursued a career in the field.

“In order for me to help others, I had to heal myself first. I had a lot of healing to do,” said Ashkewe. “After a couple of years, I was ready.”

Now, Ashkewe is coordinator of the Prenatal Nutrition Program as well as the Ambe Tigadaw Program. Ambe Tigadaw, or Let's Grow Together, is a community gardening program that helps to address food insecurity and also has a skills-based focus.

“We partner with local community gardens to grow our own food, harvest the food and then offer cooking workshops,” explained Ashkewe. “Some of our young women have never had a relationship with their mother, or grandmother, so we cook together to make meals or to learn a skill. Today we are running a beet canning workshop, learning all about preserving food.”

In addition to offering practical skills-based programs, such as prenatal nutrition, parenting, or food preparation, ONWG programs also focus on emotional and spiritual well-being.

The vision of ONWG is “to encourage and empower the growth of Indigenous women,” and Ashkewe is a member of a small staff team that works to accomplish this.

Her colleagues include Lisa Phillips who serves as the Indigenous Parenting Program Coordinator, and Lacey Smith, who coordinates the Breaking Free from Family Violence Program.

Smith, who is a survivor of domestic violence and an advocate for ending violence against women, says it was always a dream of hers to be in a position like her current role with ONWG.

“I want women to know that the ONWG is there for them — a safe place where they can find their voices again, speak their truths and share their stories. I want them to know it is possible to live a life that is free from violence," Smith explained.

“When women come here, they begin to trust us and learn they can talk with us,” added Phillips. “They are often looking for who they are, looking for connections and looking for a sense of belonging.”

Ashkewe says she is the perfect example of how empowering the ONWG can be, and in her case, a life-changer.

After the death of her eldest daughter in 2020, Ashkewe said there were times when she just wanted to give up.

“But it was my community here, friends and family that really helped me in my healing," she said.

“When people come through the door, they’re always welcomed here. We always feed them. We always have a good time and they just want to come back because they feel that community piece that they’re missing,” said Phillips.

For more information about the Orillia Native Women’s Group and its programs and events, visit the ONWG website.