Monday August 21, 2017

How Riley Yesno gained the courage to speak up for Indigenous rights

Riley Yesno sits on the Prime Minister's Youth Council.

Riley Yesno sits on the Prime Minister's Youth Council. (Prime Minister's Youth Council)

Listen 6:29

Growing up in the small fly-in community of Eabametoong First Nation, Riley Yesno never imagined she'd become an advocate for Indigenous people. While her father is First Nations and a registered member of the reserve, her mom is of European descent.

"Growing up there was hard because even though I really appreciated my culture and I really wanted to connect to it, people would be saying to me stuff like: 'You only get the grades that you get because you're white'," said Yesno.

"You're just painted with this huge, broad paintbrush and it's like 'They don't want to hear my voice,' and even though I feel like I should belong to this group, they don't want me there."

As a teenager, Yesno attended high school in Thunder Bay— and it was during those years that she started to become more sure of her Indigenous identity.

"What I say matters." 

Last year, when Yesno was in Grade 11, her mother encouraged her to apply to be on the Prime Minister's Youth Council.

"My Mom saw it on Facebook, and she was like, 'Riley, you have to apply for this!', and I was like, 'Mom, you're ridiculous'."

Even though she didn't think she had a chance, Yesno applied anyway. From over 16,000 applicants, she was selected this January to be one of eleven new members. Of the total 26 members, she is one of the youngest.

Prime Minister's Youth Council

Riley Yesno, on left, joined the Prime Minister's youth council in January 2017. (Facebook / Prime Minister's Youth Council)

It was during a recent meeting of the council that Yesno started to realize that her perspective as a First Nations woman was valuable. While they were wrapping up a session on reconciliation, one of the other members said that although he enjoyed learning from the experts, he learned the most from Riley during their meetings.

"That was unbelievable to me, I was like, 'Okay what I say matters'," said Yesno.

"I also realized that 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."