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Sarah Yankoo

Sarah Yankoo

Photo of Sarah Yankoo

Sarah Yankoo

Senior Policy and Research Analyst, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation

Bachelor in Environmental Studies 2013

About Sarah Yankoo

What made you choose your program at York University? Why did you decide on your major?

At that time, I wanted to be an English and Drama teacher. I even planned to take French as a second language to increase my chances of finding employment post-graduation. I applied to York amongst other Toronto area schools because I had relatives who went to York. After visiting the Glendon Campus, I found it was so beautiful and tranquil. My friend and I both applied and we moved into residence together.  Having a friend from high school attend university with me made the decision and transition a lot easier.

During my time there, I ended up dropping a course, and decided to fill it with an environmental studies class – “Local Food and Agriculture in the GTA”. It was taught by a PhD Alumna Lauren Baker, who was the Executive Director of FoodShare at the time, now the Director of Programs for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.  I don’t know how I got into that course, because there were people literally knocking on the door looking to be in the class because it was full – however, I am glad I did! That course totally changed the entire trajectory of my life. It was almost by design, that I was meant to be exactly where I was supposed to be. 

After that course, I just knew, I wanted whatever else this Environmental Studies program had to offer, and I didn’t care if it meant travelling from Glendon (the area I lived in) to the Keele campus. There were lots of great resources, opportunities, events (and food!) at the Keele Campus. I was still connected to Glendon and took all my English minor classes there. I was also able to take courses in Environmental Studies which also led to the Indigenous Studies Certificate.

Describe how the program prepared you for your post-graduation journey.

It felt like the future and past collaborated and designed the entire program that was for me.  Everything that I’ve done since was created by what the program provided. There isn't any aspect of what I do now that doesn't feel like it was like informed and supported by my BES; all of the disciplines that I feel blessed and equipped with.

York showed me value in areas that that I didn’t even consider.  As I said, I wanted to become a teacher, but what York had to offer completely changed that trajectory.  The options in front of me unveiled so many different possibilities.  But, there was a lot of navigating that I had to do, it wasn’t an easy feat. It required fortitude, vision and perseverance and a lot of it.  So, when you say it’s a two-way street, I would say that reciprocity is very important, you have to design it and commit to it.

I had some really amazing professors I really was blessed and they are another reason why it felt so destined  and designed to be where I was because in the Indigenous Studies Certificate I was taught by Professor Bonita Lawrence.  She wrote a book about urban Indian identity (Real” Indians and Others - Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood) and she was doing research for a book about my people, the Algonquins, and our land claim. But being able to take so many different courses with her was incredible. She was, and is still, so important to everything my life.

Could you speak a bit more about your identity and share your narrative and how York allowed you to experience that and how it shaped the work that you’re doing.

Let me give you one example.  I was sitting in Bonita Lawrence’s Intro to Indigenous Studies class and it was approaching the winter break when we were studying the 60’s Scoop.  It wasn’t until then that I realized that what happened with my mother and her family, had happened to so many Indigenous families.  Essentially, many people who attended residential schools – during and after that time period – many Indigenous peoples weren’t taught how to be parents.  As a result of that, there was a continued effort to apprehend indigenous children and place them in non-native households to be assimilated.  It was a concerted effort and there was a recent court case that actually provided compensation to people who were affected and lost their culture.

So, my mother and her sisters were all apprehended except for the eldest one, and her brother was never seen again.  The only memory my mom has is of dropping him off at a farm.  Though she tried, she still hasn’t found him.  And that happened a lot to the boys.  My mom's family has a broad experience of the 60’s scoop. My mother was placed with one family and was never adopted, but permanently fostered and it was a good decent upbringing, she had a good life.  On the other hand, my aunt Lynda went through so many different homes and so many different hardships and was emancipated at 14. But, she went to the University of Toronto, obtained a master’s degree and used that knowledge to put our family history together.  That was another reason that I was so driven to go to school.  With that knowledge, my aunt Lynda applied to find my mother. When my mom decided to have a child, she wanted to have more genetic information.  When she applied she was notified that she has a sister who is looking for her and was asked if she wanted to meet her. Together, they found my aunt Bev and aunt Yvonne and discovered that that they had another sister who passed away in care. They still haven’t found my uncle Donny.

Book by Sarah's aunt Lynda - "Lillian and Kokomis: The Spirit of Dance"

So, as I’m going over my readings for the 60’s scoop in the intro to Indigenous studies class, I knew that this was part of my life, and upbringing but I didn't think about it critically – it was just life. At that time, I was non-status, and internalized messaging like “Canada doesn't recognize me as indigenous”. I was going through the readings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s and I see that my aunt Lynda had spoken at one of the Royal Commission hearings. Her words made it into the report, and she’s talking about my family. And that was one of the moments where what I was experiencing at York shaped my identity. I tell that story, because as a student in the program, I had a ton to unpack and it I would have been on an entirely different journey if it weren’t for what Bonita provided me through York.  She really gave me the tools to be able to enter into any space and be my full authentic self.

I'm proud to say that my Aunt Lynda has also published a book "Lillian and Kokomis: The Spirit of Dance", which is a story about Lillian, a girl of mixed Indigenous and white ancestry who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home as long as she can remember. She doesn’t feel like she fits in with the white kids nor the Indigenous kids in school. Yet, through a spirit that helps her remember her traditional ways, she manages to eventually find happiness and a sense of belonging.

What did your post-graduation journey look like?

After I graduated, my first role was as an intern at the Council of Ontario Universities, and the first project that I worked on was the self-identification of university students.  Being Urban, coming from the 60 Scoop, dismantling the connection between me and my mother’s family, and growing up with my father, and my indigenous identity, it is not an understatement at all that I feel that the programs and my experience at York have impacted my career trajectory and personal development because of the wide spectrum of what I could study.  So, to put all these fundamental pieces together and understand my indigenous identity in this context, it seemed once again that everything was by design, in that I concluded my academic journey, and started my career with a project about indigenous student self-identification in university.

Fast-forward to what I am doing in my current role as Senior Policy and Research Analyst at Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, we’re still working on the identity politics of our claim.  From the personal to the national levels, the program gave me the opportunity to explore my own personal narrative looking at different perspectives and understanding the geopolitical contexts of what Indigenous identity in Canada is like.  I would not have been able to relate to everything I work on in my current career without Toronto, and York being located in that city – it was a huge part of who I am.

Right now I'm a Senior Policy and Research Analyst at Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation.  And I’ve been working with them on and off for the last few years.  Before my current role, I would be working on technology and communications. I even worked in the public works department and the Cultural Center.  The economy over here is a bit different, and because I’m self-employed, I’ve had to be creative with my career/work opportunities.  So, I did a lot of website development, working in the arts sector – these work opportunities and family support gave me the capacity to subsidize my transition out of Toronto to the Algonquin area.

I’m really grateful for the diverse experiences I have had, because with the First Nation, it was a single employer kind of place, that had a culture that wasn’t as receptive to the ways that I was thinking (because of environmental studies).  I feel that things have changed because we are imagining what self-government would look like post treaty and dealing with this current pandemic reality.  I work directly with the Chief and Council on so many more issues, and my ideas are received better than they were when I started working with them five years ago.  They're more attentive to the fact that there are potential global realities that First Nations could prepare, adapt and be ready for. 

Looking back, I think of when I first approached the First Nation, there wasn’t an immediate opportunity. So instead I refocused on a new initiative I had just started working with, the Ontario Indigenous Youth Partnership. Through that work, I was able to create engagement with the members of the First Nations team, whereby I carved out a space with them where I could bring my experience and resources to, a list of all the charities, networks I was connected to through this Partnership, as well as mentioning all the courses I had taken at York with an open offer to help in any way. I persevered and, when the opportunity came up, I landed this job but, I remember feeling discouraged at first and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way, so when I work, make sure that I'm pulling people up.

Well now I say to myself, “You persevered, and look at you now, five years later and the changes you’ve made!” 

Tell me a little bit more about some of the projects you’re working on

The work that I’m doing right now is so personally validating.  All of the things that people dreamed about in the past are becoming more and more possible and that is because of technology.  Technology became so much of a part of what I do. For one of my projects I got a drone, so I’m working at the intersection of art and technology.  So much about my life just set me up to be good at what I do and it impacts so many people that it is like an infinite loop of gratitude.

A few years ago we started working on all the different parcels of land that have been proposed in our Treaty. We put together presentations and mapped out all of the land. We shared information about the size of the land, what is nearby and the current users of that provincial crown land in an effort to conceptualize and present it in a community meeting where we could build some understanding of what this Treaty is going to mean on the land. Most of the proposed land is really inaccessible, so we wanted to take a bus of people to some of the parcels of land, and literally be on the land because it was a land claim. We knew that able-bodied people could hike around and check out the land, bring their four wheelers and cruise around and get a handle on it.  We also needed to make sure that the elderly and disabled individuals could experience it, and not all of our members live in territory, that need to see the land. Actually 4/5th of our people live off-reserve, half of that, out of territory. So, the only way I could think about making the land accessible was through drone footage.  And because I have background in making videos and editing, I thought we could make something that gives people an alternative way of interpreting what these land selects are and then what it might mean for us in the context of our negotiations.