Why this 19-year-old student wants you to think critically about Canadian identity

TVO.org talks to Riley Yesno — writer, advocate, and public speaker — about her thoughts on reconciliation, allyship, and her upcoming TEDxUofT talk
By Haley Lewis - Published on February 26, 2019
Riley Yesno, a U of T student
Riley Yesno is a writer, an advocate, and a public speaker. (Courtesy of Riley Yesno)

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“If less than 200 years ago, a bunch of old white men didn't think it was too crazy to build a country, why is it so radical for us to think that we can change it now?” That’s just one of the questions 19-year-old Riley Yesno will address at her upcoming TEDxUofT talk, on March 23.

Yesno, who is from Eabametoong First Nation and grew up in Thunder Bay, is a writer, an advocate, and a public speaker. From January 2017 to January 2019 she served on the prime minister’s youth council, where, along with other youth from across the country, she provided advice to the prime minister and the government of Canada. Now pursuing a BA in Indigenous studies and political science at the University of Toronto, her goal is to work as a journalist in some capacity, amplifying underrepresented voices and stories.

TVO.org spoke with Riley Yesno about reconciliation, reimagining identity, and representing youth on the national stage.

University of British Columbia reconciliation studies instructor Sandlanee Gid has said, “Reconciliation means that you had a good relationship to begin with and then you're reconciling that relationship” — what do you think of that?

Reconciliation, as it is most commonly known, and as the government likes to tout it to be, is not real. I don't know that there's anything to reconcile, because it's never been in Canada's interest — and it still isn’t — to reconcile with Indigenous people. As much as they may say it is, they don't even know what that looks like. They couldn't even articulate what real, meaningful reconciliation is. I don't know that I could, either.

When I think of reconciliation, I think about something that Jesse Wente said, which is along the lines of: Reconciliation as we know it now is not for Indigenous people; it's for non-Indigenous people, because, as Indigenous people, we have to live with our reconciliation every day.

Every morning I have to wake up and reconcile that I am everything Indian Residential Schools dreamed I would be. I'm an assimilated woman living on land that's not my own, far more fluent in the language of the colonizer. How do I reconcile that?

What advice do you have for people who want to be or who consider themselves allies?

People tend to really want to speak out. But I think the very first step that you can take is listening to the marginalized people that you seek to ally yourself with and taking whatever they say to heart. It's not a debate. You have to realize that what they're giving you is coming from a place of such generosity. Once you're able to accept their lived experiences, it's going to be infinitely more valid and valuable than any degree that you can have.

What was your experience like working with the prime minister's youth council?

It was formative for me and taught me a lot — not even just about politics, but about how to have conversations with people that you really fundamentally disagree with and how to navigate spaces that are sometimes tense and uncomfortable.

Did you find it difficult, in today’s political climate, to juggle being Indigenous and working with the government?

Totally — because at the end of the day, the government of Canada is a colonial system. There was a point in my meetings where that fact always became so clear. I think we really romanticized this idea of working within the system and changing it from within. I had to really interrogate why I was there because I don't know that I fully believed that it was my greatest avenue to effect change.

What keeps you going?

I've really internalized that you are here because of the generations that came before you, so you have to live for at least the seven generations that come after you. That is always incredibly motivating — the only way to honour the dead is to fight like hell for the living.

Can you give us a bit of a preview of your TEDxUofT talk?

I've been thinking a lot about the aftermath of what happened in Victoria with the John A. Macdonald statue. I wrote an article a while ago about that, sent it off to a couple of places, and they were just like, "I don't know where this fits." My whole point was that the reason people are so mad about these John A. Macdonald statues is not because it's an erasure of history — because there are so many holes in that argument. It's more that he's a symbol of Canadian identity, and if we have to admit that he's this racist genocidal colonizer, what does that say about Canada? What does that say about Canadians?

I'm also in this class that’s asking us to think about Canadian identity: What are the values of a Canadian? And these words like tolerance, diversity, progressive, multicultural, and nice are being thrown around. It’s so infuriating to me as an Indigenous women.

The theme of TEDx this year is “Spectrum.” My argument is not so much that Canada is a bad country — it's just that you can't call it good either. It's somewhere in between. But to call it good is an erasure of all of the people who suffer within the same borders every day.

My talk is encouraging people to think critically about Canadian identity, but more specifically that our identities can be changed.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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