Indigenous rights advocate Riley Yesno says no to a life in politics but will keep pushing for equality

When Riley Yesno rose in the House of Commons to deliver a speech on the number of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada, the national inquiry’s final report was looming and Jody Wilson Raybould had just been kicked out of the Liberal caucus by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Yesno felt it was an important and timely topic to bring up during the Daughters of the Vote, a program that invites young women from across the country to apply to be one of 338 Members of Parliament for a day. The women make speeches to address current issues.

Few people get to speak in the House of Commons and the University of Toronto student says it certainly was intimidating.

“I was actually very uncomfortable with the whole situation before I went in, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it,” says Yesno. “I felt very uncomfortable in the colonialality of the House of Commons.

“I don’t think you can get much more colonial than that and just knowing the history of those spaces and the sort of decisions that were made there like we’re denied the right for Indigenous women to vote until the 1960s, that put my grandparents in residential schools for decades and knowing that Indigenous women and Indigenous people were not supposed to be in that space.”

Yesno, an Anishinaabe woman originally from Eabametoong First Nation in Northern Ontario is no stranger to federal politics.

From 2017 to 2019, she was a member of Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Council.

When Yesno was younger, she wanted to become a Member of Parliament but has been completely turned off of the idea.

“I had this very romantic idea of what politics was as a change making vehicle and then the more I learned about politics and interacted with politicians and the political world, the less and less I believed that,” she says.

When Yesno was still in grade school, her whole family moved to Thunder Bay.

Many First Nations youth from northern Ontario have to attend high school in Thunder Bay at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

Yesno says her experience was different from other teenagers forced to move to Thunder Bay for school.

“I was able to hide my Indigeneity, so nobody ever asked if I was and I would never say it.  It was a way to avoid the racism and having to deal with hose tough conversations” says Yesno.

“Even your own friends and people around you would say really anti-Indigenous things” says Yesno. “So, the way for me to just deal with this was to pretend it didn’t exist.”

Thunder Bay has developed a reputation for the way Indigenous peoples are treated, especially young students flying in from northern Ontario communities to attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

Between 2000 and 2011, seven young students died in Thunder Bay while attending school, many under suspicious circumstances.

In December 2018, an investigation by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director determined Thunder Bay Police failed to properly investigate at least nine sudden death investigations in the city.

Thunder Bay also has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of reported hate crimes in Canada.

Mayor Bill Mauro has blamed the national media for unfair coverage of the city and its issues.

“I’ve always believed that Thunder Bay was a microcosm for the rest of Canada” says Yesno who acknowledges there are racism issues in other parts of the country. “There are so many stats and experiences and stories that can counter the mayor’s claims.  We’re the hate crime capital of Canada and it’s called Murder Bay, like notoriously known.

“I think there’s a lot of willful ignorance and probably internalized racism and prejudice on that part of those statements.”

Yesno believes there are little changes taking place in Thunder Bay pointing to work being done by the local library system and airport.

“But they aren’t the really hard, uncomfortable, meaningful work that I think the city and the Indigenous youth in the city need to see,” says Yesno.

Yesno says the city needs a student residence for youth attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty.

She also believes Thunder Bay needs a better transit system and big changes within the police department.

Yesno is currently attending the University of Toronto where she is studying Indigenous studies and political science.

Yesno has made a name for herself as a strong voice for Indigenous youth.

She has also written for numerous national publications and delivered a Tedx talk.

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