When other countries talk about Canada, they typically talk about it with a sense of admiration. They see Canada as everything they want to be and more – the kindness of its people, its universal healthcare, and its forward thinking.
But Canadian Aboriginals experience a very different Canada from the one we see in its reputation. Indigenous Canadians experience poor living conditions, higher rates of murder and sexual assault, and a government that insists they cannot change. They live through the effects of authoritative powers who think, despite their non-Indigenous status, that they have the ability to decide whether or not reconciliation has been achieved.
The Canadian government believes the small steps it has taken towards reconciliation are enough to erase the past of suffering that Canadian Aboriginals were forced to endure, and the current issues they still face.
The fact of the matter is, the Canadian government will never be able to erase the past, and their efforts have hardly begun to delve into the reconciliation that Indigenous Peoples deserve. Riley Yesno, a 19-year-old member of the Eabametoong First Nation, is fighting for the reconciliation that Indigenous Peoples have been calling for for years. She is also working to boost underrepresented Indigenous voices through her work in journalism to bring more awareness to their unique perspectives.
Yesno advocates that, in order for true reconciliation to occur, the Canadian government needs to start anew. She also argues that apologies do very little good if the country is not willing to put effort into reformation on behalf of Indigenous people.
“Instead of trying to make room for them in colonial systems and institutions that were never meant for Indigenous people to exist within, we need to find the willingness to tear it all down and reimagine what a nation that respects truth might look like—and then build that nation.” (“Before”)
Canada has made land acknowledgments and given Indigenous people more spots in Parliament, but this does not make up for the reality that treaty rights are repeatedly violated and that many Canadians do not believe that Indigenous communities should have power over their own affairs (“Before”). Yesno addresses the Canadian government in her article “Before reconciliation is possible, Canadians must admit the truth”, pushing the point that true reconciliation with Indigenous people is not possible without the reconstruction of the government to respect the fact that Indigenous people built the foundation of Canada. Her tone conveys the fact that she is hopeful that reform will occur, though she is truthful in saying that, “We are nowhere near the year of reconciliation; we likely won’t even see that utopian year in our lifetimes” (“Before”).
Yesno’s expectation that she will not get to experience reconciliation for Indigenous Canadians reflects the attitude of the Canadian government towards the topic. She does not argue that they are an inherently “bad” country, but rather that they need to work harder to uphold the values they boast and that are reflected in the reputation of the country. Yesno hears words such as “tolerance, diversity, progressive, multicultural, and nice” (Yesno qtd. in “Why”) used to describe Canada and its people. Meanwhile, the Canadian government works to placate Canadian Aboriginals instead of working to create a culture and society in which they are prioritized in the same manner as other groups. Until the government changes the ways in which they think of reconciliation, Yesno believes that the use of such words to describe Canada minimizes the struggles Indigenous People face every day. She says, “To call it [Canada] good is an erasure of all the people who suffer within the same borders every day” (Yesno qtd. in “Why”).
Reconciliation, in Yesno’s eyes, conveys the expectation that change will occur. While the Canadian government has made steps to honor reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, it has done very little in working to teach Indigenous history in schools or decreasing food insecurity in Native communities. There are a number of ways Canada could continue to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous people; the issue Yesno has identified is that the Canadian government is blind to the need for continuation.
(University of Toronto – March 2019)
In her Ted Talk on the reputation of Canada and how it is inaccurate from the point of view of a First Nations woman and from the perspective of many Canadian Aboriginals, Yesno addresses the fact that Native communities are harshly underprivileged. She recounts memories of growing up in a mold infested home and brushing her teeth with boiled water due to contaminated water sources being the only water sources Indigenous communities were offered. Yesno’s ardent tone implores her audience of non-Indigenous Canadians, and non-Indigenous people in general, to entertain the idea that the ‘nice’ Canada “has never been the Canada for all” (Yesno qtd. in “It’s Time”). Many non-Indigenous people have expressed that they believe that Yesno focuses on only the negative about Canada. With determination in her eyes and an unwavering voice, she counters that living in Canada as an Indigenous woman is not a pleasant experience, recounting details such as the wage gap between Indigenous women and white men and the disparity between Indigenous women in Canada’s population and the amount of murdered or missing women they make up.
Yesno also touches on what non-Indigenous people can do as allies. She describes an experience after a speech she gave in Stockholm, Sweden during which a Pakistani woman came up to her and asked what she could do to help. In response to this memory, Yesno says that being an ally to Indigenous people is not about speaking out. It is about “listening to the marginalized people that you seek to ally yourself with and taking whatever they say to heart” (Yesno qtd. in “Why”). Alliance with Indigenous people is about stepping back and hearing what they have to say, not interjecting the perspectives of non-Indigenous people into their struggles.
Riley Yesno also served on Prime Minister Trudeau’s Youth Council, where she advised the Prime Minister and others, from 2017 to 2019. While she had previously experienced discrimination from others in the First Nation, feeling as though her voice and perspective were not supposed to be heard due to the fact that she is white passing, this experience allowed her to embrace her identity and become an advocate for Indigenous people.
In an article published by CBC News on Yesno’s journey, Yesno says, “I also realized there was probably a lot of people like me who don’t feel like they fit in for one reason or another, or they don’t feel like they fit into this sense of cultural identity, or that their voice doesn’t matter. That’s when I realized that voice needs representation, and I would love to be that voice of representation for that group of people” (Yesno qtd. in “How”). Yesno realizes that the issue of cultural dissociation extends beyond herself into a large group of people who struggle to identify as Indigenous due to their outward appearance. Members of this group are often outcasted due to the fact that they do not face some of the blatant forces of discrimination that “Indigenous-looking” people do. However, this in itself is an act of discrimination coming from inside Indigenous communities, and Yesno is working to put an end to it while also seeking reconciliation for all Canadian Aboriginals.
Reconciliation is, in Yesno’s eyes, dealt with by Indigenous people every single day; because of this, she says that reconciliation is to be carried out by non-Indigenous people. Indigenous people have done more than their part. However, while she addresses her audience of non-Indigenous people in an interview with Haley Lewis of TVO, with an assertive tone in an effort to hold them accountable, she also realizes that there are some issues on which she shares their apprehensions. Yesno says, “They [non-Indigenous Canadians] couldn’t even articulate what real, meaningful reconciliation is. I don’t know that I could, either” (Yesno qtd. in “Why”). She recognizes that reconciliation is a hard thing to define, and that it may not have the same definition for every Indigenous person. However, a common theme in the many different definitions of reconciliation is change – whether it be in the way the government is run or in the way Canada is seen by outside eyes.
Despite her personal difficulties defining reconciliation, Yesno acknowledges that every day she reconciles that she is “everything Indian Residential Schools dreamed she would be” (Yesno qtd. in “Why”). She must come to terms with the fact that she is far closer to the world of non-Indigenous Canadians than she is to the First Nations community. Similarly, each Indigenous person must reconcile their own burdens every day.
“We cannot feel guilty for past actions or past wrongs. All we can do is feel responsible for correcting them and making sure that they don’t happen again” (Yesno qtd. in “It’s Time”).
Riley Yesno is a strong figure in the fight for reconciliation for the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. She is a representative for those who feel as though their voice is lost in the crowd, and she works to ensure that they know that it is not. Yesno stands for reconciliation that leads to change, and nothing less.
Yesno, Riley. “Before Reconciliation Is Possible, Canadians Must Admit the Truth.” Macleans.ca, 14 Dec. 2018, Accessed 23 September, 2019 https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/before-reconciliation-is-possible-canadians-must-admit-the-truth/.
“How Riley Yesno Gained the Courage to Speak up for Indigenous Rights | CBC Radio.” CBC news, CBC/Radio Canada, 18 Aug. 2017, Accessed 23 September, 2019 https://www.cbc.ca/radio/newfire/indigenous-youth-are-standing-up-and-speaking-out-1.4181773/how-riley-yesno-gained-the-courage-to-speak-up-for-indigenous-rights-1.4212353.
“It’s Time to Re-Imagine Canada’s ‘Nice’ Identity: Riley Yesno: TEDxUofT.” YouTube, 13 May 2019, Accessed 23 September, 2019 https://youtu.be/dZih64Z2wxQ.
Lewis, Haley. “Why This 19-Year-Old Student Wants You to Think Critically about Canadian Identity.” TVO.org, 26 Feb. 2019, Accessed 23 September, 2019 https://www.tvo.org/article/why-this-19-year-old-student-wants-you-to-think-critically-about-canadian-identity.