As It Happens·Q&A

Anishinaabe advocate calls on Canadians to put their 'allyship into action' at the polls

Earlier this year, it seemed like everyone was talking about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, says writer and activist Riley Yesno. Then an election was called, and those conversations dropped off the radar.

Riley Yesno says Indigenous rights have dropped off the radar during the federal election news cycle

Writer and Indigenous rights advocate Riley Yesno says Canada's relationship with Indigenous people should be a key election issue. (Submitted by Riley Yesno)

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Earlier this year, it seemed as though everyone was talking about Canada's relationship with Indigenous people, says writer and activist Riley Yesno.

Then an election was called, and those conversations dropped off the radar.

But as far as Yesno is concerned, reconciliation, missing and murdered women, boil-water advisories, Indigenous housing and unmarked residential school graves should be top of mind for Canadians heading to the polls this fall.

Yesno is an Indigenous rights advocate from Eabametoong First Nation in Ontario, and the author of the book Reconciliation Generation, which is expected to hit shelves next year. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the 2021 federal election. Here is part of that conversation. 

I know you have been following this election campaign. So how much attention has there actually been to the issues of Indigenous people?

In terms of Indigenous affairs this election, I think that we're still not seeing enough, which is incredibly disappointing, especially coming out of the last few months, [after] all of the revelations of the graves at former residential schools.

So where did that awareness, where did that energy go when this election campaign began?

It's something that I've talked to with a lot of other Indigenous people about how hard it is to watch what seems like greater care and momentum than we've certainly seen and in many years past just kind of dissipate into the news cycle of the election. 

Composite illustration featuring Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole, centre, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. (CBC, Erin O'Toole/Creative Commons, CBC)

I know you worked with [Liberal Leader] Justin Trudeau and his youth council when you were in high school…. We saw in 2015, Justin Trudeau [said Canada's] most important relationship was our relationship with Indigenous people. And yet in six years of being the prime minister, six years since we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that said there was a cultural genocide, what has actually been done?

Looking at the Liberals' actual track record, they have completed only a small, small handful of, say, the 94 [TRC] calls to action…. They missed their target for boil-water advisories, missed their target for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls action plans. 

We've kind of just seen one broken promise after another in terms of the Trudeau Liberals.

And what about Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole? ... Flags have been flying at half mast for the children who died at those residential schools. [He said] those flags should now be raised. What are you hearing from him?

Erin O'Toole's platform and the Conservatives' was the first one that I read in terms of their Indigenous commitments. And it is actually horrifying in my view.

We started off with the title, which is, you know, saying commitments to "Canada's Indigenous people" as if, you know, Canada owns us as Indigenous people. And that's, of course, not a policy point, but just really set the tone for how out of touch I think the Conservatives were at large with Indigenous people in our communities and our voices.

And so they have nothing there for the housing crisis happening in Indigenous communities. They have picked out very specific calls of UNDRIP [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and the TRC, but [are] not going to commit to implementing the ones that will make, perhaps, the biggest difference for Indigenous people.

It's really stark to see how he's leading in the polls, at least [as] of right now. And so now Canadians who were flying their flags half mast and wearing their orange shirts are now lining up to vote for this man. It's really kind of harrowing.

I just wanted to point out your reference to the TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 94 calls to action. I think Erin O'Toole has committed to implementing six of them, I think all dealing with residential schools.... Has the NDP, has Jagmeet Singh, made reference to those calls to action?

The NDP's platform certainly has the best language and the best analysis around it so they can commit to implementing all 94 of the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action, [and] creating an Indigenous housing plan that includes on- and off-reserve. So you can tell that there is some level of, like, being in touch with Indigenous communities, and probably also because the most of the Indigenous candidates running in this election are with the NDP.

But the one thing that I'm worried about is that it's a bit of, like, a Trudeau-ism, right? Like, if they were to ever get into office, to make these far-reaching, these stretching promises, it's going to be really hard to fulfil those, I think. And then also it's going to set a really bad precedent for Indigenous people to be let down again.

Orange-clad demonstrators arrive at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 22 where hundreds of children's shoes were used to commemorate the preliminary findings of unmarked graves discovered at the sites of former residential schools. (Ben Andrews/CBC)

You had considered running for the [Ontario] NDP and then chose not to. Why is that?

You had mentioned at the beginning that I used to work with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. That was when I was very young. I was super into this idea of politics and elected politics in Canada as a change-making vehicle.

And through my time working with the prime minister, I came to realize how truly ineffective it can be at times, and more so how violent, and how perhaps my voice and my skills could be used to better serve my community in other places. 

When I was approached to run for the [upcoming] Ontario provincial election in 2022 I thought, you know, the Doug Ford government has been one of the most regressive and violent towards Indigenous people in Ontario. There needs to be some more Indigenous leadership in Queen's Park. I don't necessarily think that it will change the course of Indigenous-Ontario relations, but I do think that there could be some good work done. Is that something that I want to do?

The more I thought about it, the more I just thought along the lines of that famous Audre Lorde quote, which is that you'll never dismantle the master's house by using the master's tools. And to that end, I don't think I'll ever achieve Indigenous sovereignty through the colonial government.

What do you tell the rest of us as to how we should regard Indigenous issues when we're casting that vote?

The election time is just one time of many where non-Indigenous people who claim or want to have allyship with Indigenous people to put their money where their mouth is. And so you can't say you support Indigenous people and then show up and vote for a party that's actively trying to make things worse for us or strip away our rights or take us back in time. That is counter to everything people seem to claim a lot these days, and is not conducive to a good relationship.

During election time, it's important to turn to either the Indigenous people in your life or the countless Indigenous people online in communities who are doing advocacy work and telling us what we should be paying attention to, [and] who we should be looking at for leadership. And now's the time really to do that and put your allyship into action. 

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Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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