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In the Spotlight: Riley Yesno

Outstanding Indigenous Student of the Year talks public policy, liberation
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DELPHINE JI/TEDXUOFT
DELPHINE JI/TEDXUOFT

Riley Yesno, a fourth-year U of T student majoring in political science and Indigenous studies, was one of this year’s recipients of the President’s Award for Outstanding Indigenous Student of the Year at U of T. Yesno is Anishinaabe from Eabametoong First Nation.

Her work as a public speaker and writer has made her a prominent advocate for gender equality and Indigenous justice and liberation. Currently, Yesno is working on a book that she hopes will be completed by the end of 2021. In the book, she will take a look at the post-1997 generation of Indigenous youth, who were the first to not attend residential schools.

Looking forward, Yesno will be pursuing a PhD at U of T with the Department of Political Science starting in the fall, focusing on a similar topic to her book. 

The Varsity spoke with Yesno about the Canadian political landscape, storytelling as a means of activism, and her plans for the future.

Institutional reckoning

She has been engaged in activism and community building since she served on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Council from January 2017 to January 2019. Originally entranced by party politics, Yesno became disillusioned with mainstream politics through her experience on Trudeau’s council, a group of young people that provides non-partisan advice to the prime minister. 

“I got there, and I quickly realized that the political world is not… this ultimate change-making vehicle that we are often told that it is,” Yesno explained. “Especially as a queer Indigenous person, the white supremacy, the violence, the things that we were facing in those rooms… I found [it] to be pretty egregious.”

Yesno began to lean into public speaking as an alternative avenue for change. She was part of the Canadian delegation at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference and toured Europe speaking on gender equality with a focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Though she had abandoned the hope that institutional avenues could provide meaningful ways of achieving liberation, she has since started to look at policy engagement in a new light.

“Canada is not meant to dismantle Canada — Canada is not going to give me the land back on a silver platter,” Yesno said. “However, I do think that [policy engagement is] important because people who do [government work] prevent further egregious harms from happening.”

Yesno elaborated that she believes government work allows others — such as storytellers and community organizers — to do the work necessary for liberation.  

Liberation and art

When asked how she defines liberation, Yesno responded that it means something beyond just equality and security. 

“It’s looking at society and people and culture in its entirety,” Yesno explained. “Completely reshaping and rethinking what that is and what that can be. And that entails also a complete elimination of dominance.”

She proposed that Indigenous peoples have realized the limitations of and moved past the vision of reconciliation. She explained that despite having grown up under a narrative of reconciliation, she feels that her generation has really rejected it. From her perspective, Indigenous communities want substantive changes that will return their freedom, such as getting their land back. 

Yesno emphasized art and storytelling as mechanisms for bringing about a cultural shift that would lead to substantive change. Aside from their economic value, Yesno argued that stories make us better citizens, thinkers, and “world makers.”

“Storytelling [and] community organizing [are] the stuff that [change] people’s hearts and minds, which is a real fundamental portion of [making change].” 

She acknowledged that art, regardless of whether it is Indigenous or not, is not considered very valuable in modern society. Yesno believes that the solution to apathy toward art and, more broadly, social issues as a whole is to restructure how people learn and think of community. 

Yesno explained that education should teach what it means to be a good community member and have good relationships with others. “Once we do that, we can see very clearly that an injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us,” she added.

Given the profit-driven state of artistic industries, Yesno suggested resisting the corruption of capitalism in little ways every day. She characterized this as “planting seeds” — even if you can’t see the results of your work now, it will benefit future generations.

Intersectionality and anxiety

Awareness of intersectionality between Indigenous justice and other social issues is also important to Yesno. In a discussion about community ties, she noted that, for LGBTQ+ Indigenous people, the hurt of being rejected by their family can be incredibly intense. 

Precolonization, many Indigenous nations were not contained by the same heteronormative and patriarchal standards as Western societies, and so rejection of LGBTQ+ individuals is another remnant of colonialism. She added that Indigenous traditions have also provided an avenue to escape those norms.

“There are more and more people, especially young folks, who are returning… to our traditional ways of being and understanding the world,” Yesno said. “That does unlock a lot of conversations and reflections around gender and sexuality.”

On the topic of the climate crisis, Yesno said that it’s important to think of environmental justice rather than environmentalism. The goal must be to build an environmentally sustainable lifestyle rather than just saving the planet, and Yesno believes Indigenous justice is key to that.

Specifically, it’s important that societies work to indigenize new technologies and science going forward. “We now recognize that we have been gifted so many beautiful things through science and through innovation and that we can find ways to… make those [line up] with ethics of sustainability and community care.”