Indigenous students recognized for academic achievement, leadership and advocacy

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Two University of Toronto students received the President’s Award for Outstanding Indigenous Student of the Year this week during a virtual ceremony bookended by song and prayer.

The recipients – Riley Yesno, a fourth-year student at Victoria College, and Jessie Stirling of the Faculty of Law – were recognized for their contributions to the university as well as to their broader Indigenous communities.

“You’ve brought a spirit of engagement and community spirit to our university, enriching our entire academic community, and you inspire us,” U of T President Meric Gertler said in his remarks during the ceremony.

The event, hosted via Zoom by U of T’s First Nations House, began with an opening prayer led by Ojibwe Elder Whabagoon. Nenookaasi Ochrym, an Indigenous singer and activist, then presented a welcome song, which was followed by remarks from First Nations House Director Michael White and Andrea Johns, a previous award recipient.

Yesno, a member of Eabametoong First Nation who grew up mainly in Thunder Bay, Ont., spoke about finding comfort in the Indigenous community at First Nations House after initially feeling lost in Toronto.

“It’s been a long time now ­– almost a year – since I’ve been on my homelands and been able to hear our drum songs and our languages, so this is really refreshing to me,” Yesno said of the ceremony.

“[First Nations House] became a central hub and a foundational spot for me on campus. You can probably find me there any day of the week, eating the food and drinking the tea.”

Yesno has been heavily involved in community advocacy for years. She has served on the Prime Minister’s Youth Council and frequently addresses Indigenous, environmental, youth and LGBTQ2S+ issues in her work as a writer and public speaker. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and Maclean’s, among others.

In 2019, she gave a TEDxTalk questioning the dominant perceptions of Canadian identity and calling on her audience to re-imagine that identity. Yesno also spoke about Indigenous models of sustainability at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2018.