Velma Orvis was medicine.
That’s how one of her co-workers at a North End drop-in centre for at-risk women described the 79-year-old Winnipeg elder who died on Friday.
“People say all this stuff when people die, but I’m telling you, Velma was the real deal,” Sandy Banman, who worked alongside Orvis at Sage House, said on Sunday.
Orvis, who had Ojibway, Cree, Scottish and English heritage, was well-known across the city for her work bringing First Nations teachings and knowledge to people who wanted them — whether they were in church, on the street or in prison.
“Her heart was always in the same place. It was always about unconditional love,” she said.
Orvis’s niece Shelley Orvis confirmed her aunt was battling an illness, and died after spending several months in hospital.
Orvis’s work had a profound impact on people from diverse communities in Winnipeg, Banman said. She worked with groups including End Homelessness Winnipeg, Ka Ni Kanichihk and Grandmothers Protecting our Children.
She brought cultural teachings to prisoners at Stony Mountain Institution and lessons about reconciliation to parishioners in the Anglican Church.
She was also the grandmother keeper of the moccasin tops for Walking With Our Sisters, an art installation of 1,700 pairs of moccasin tops representing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Isabel Daniels, who worked with Orvis at Sage House for two years, said the elder was one of few willing to bring ceremony to the women there, many of whom struggle with addictions and trauma.
“It was hard for us, as staff, to get people to come in there and show these women love and give them teachings,” she said.
“She gave love to anybody that walked in through that door.”
As a survivor of exploitation, Daniels said Orvis’s approach resonated with her.
“People that are in that need of help, they often don’t get it,” Daniels said. “She always believed that you need to plant that seed with people. If you don’t plant the seed, they’ll never grow.”
Daniels said even after she left the drop-in centre in 2017, her relationship with Orvis continued — the elder even drove out to Buffalo Point to do a traditional ceremony for her wedding.
“I wanted somebody that I could trust. I wanted somebody that had love for people no matter what,” she said.
“I asked her and she said that she would be honoured to come out and do the ceremony for us and teach us what it meant to be married in our culture.”
Daniels said even after the ceremony ended, Orvis stuck around to give teachings to people who wanted them.
“A lot of our family didn’t know how to be traditional, so she was giving them the basic knowledge of how to use medicine, how to smudge,” she said.
“It was an unexpected day for her, but she sat there and she gave them those teachings — every single one of them.”
Orvis also became a go-to person for guidance in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, who managed Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s liaison unit for the inquiry.
“Velma was a very beautiful spirit and she was a matriarch and a pillar of strength in the community,” said Anderson-Pyrz.
“She has left a legacy and hard shoes to fill, showing that love and kindness can heal many people.”
Daniels said the elder’s death is a monumental loss for women like her, whose paths were forever changed because they knew Orvis — and for the women who now won’t get the chance to.
“She was giving people their traditional names and all that kind of stuff, so it’s going to be extremely hard to replace that in the community, extremely hard for those women to find somebody to trust again,” she said.
“I don’t know what those women are going to do now.”
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