By Michael Oleksyn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher who is originally from Prince Albert, Dr. Robert (Bobby) Henry (PhD), has been awarded the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Indigenous Justice and Well-being.
Henry’s work on Indigenous street gangs and lifestyles has received international recognition. He was humbled to be chosen.
“It’s a really big honour to actually hold one of these,” Henry said. “It’s based off of the amount of work that you put into your craft. It recognizes the hard work and dedication that people have into doing things, so these Canada Research Chairs are fairly prestigious.”
Only two per cent of Canadian professors receive the honour.
“For myself, real simple, the importance is it just shows the hard work that I put into this and the dedication and the commitment from communities to continue supporting me in trying to understand street gangs and street lifestyles,” Henry explained.
Tier 2 CRCs, worth $120,000 annually for five years, are awarded by Canada’s three major granting agencies to exceptional emerging researchers who are recognized by peers for their potential to be leaders in their field.
Henry is an assistant professor in Indigenous Studies at USask’s College of Arts and Science, and the executive director of the Saskatchewan Network Environments of Indigenous Health Research (SK-NEIHR). He aims to improve public understanding of street gangs and lifestyles through community-engaged research, and to inform policies that can reduce the “hyper-incarceration” of Indigenous persons.
The work he does is somewhat inspired by growing up in Prince Albert.
“I worked in Prince Albert as an educational assistant and that’s kind of where I got interested in understanding this,” he remembered. “What I was seeing from the kids and what I was seeing in the media and what the police were saying and provincial justice were saying it just wasn’t making sense.”
This convinced him to take a deeper look at the subject.
“That’s what got me interested, to understand how we are defining youth into gangs, what are gang subcultures, how are people being involved into it and what is the role of masculinity and masculine performance within the streets basis,” he explained.
The subject was initially street gangs and lifestyles in general.
Henry started by doing interviews, surveys, and ethnography, but the more he researched, the more he began using non-traditional approaches. That includes what he calls “arts based and strength based approaches” that are designed to give people who live in those spaces an opportunity to show others what they are going through, instead of just telling.
Henry said he wants to understand the complexities of gang involvement by viewing it through a lens of “survivance,” a term that encompasses survival, resistance and resurgence.
He explained that it is a literary tool and he is trying to see if it can apply to the real world and how people get into and out of street gangs.
When individuals join a gang, Henry said it’s often because they want to survive, and can see no other way of doing so. While they often partially resist what’s happening in the gang, Henry said Indigenous members also see gangs as a way to reclaim spaces in the community in which Indigenous people have been pushed out.
When they begin to move away from the gang lifestyle, the resurgence element is introduced as they redefine who they are.
“When you get into the gang you create a mask and as you are leaving the gang you take that mask off and you redefine who you are,” Henry explained. “You are no longer that individual who is engaged in violence and addiction and so forth, but you are redefining yourself into your new space and (asking) how do you give back and how do you not become a contributing member, (and) how do you engage in a lifestyle that doesn’t centre around violence and street economy.”
Henry, who is Metis, is working with non-profit organizations, TR8 UP in Saskatoon and Ogijiita Pimatisiwin Kinamatwin (OPK) in Winnipeg_to “shoulder tap” youths and adults with gang experience to establish a gender- and age-representative community advisory committee.
“I’m Metis from Prince Albert so I take an Indigenous approach to this research,” he said. “Growing up in PA you just see different kinds of things and all of that.”
While the CRC will train highly qualified personnel (HQP) from USask, Henry said a major focus will be the community advisory group, which will inform him about local street politics and specific research the communities want.
He plans to use photovoice, digital storytelling, and body-mapping, which has proven effective in past research projects, as well as interviews and focus groups to examine the life histories of Indigenous peoples engaged in gang and street life.
With little community-involved research conducted with Indigenous gangs so far, Henry said, much of what is presumed about these groups is based on street gangs in the United States and that creates misconceptions. A big misconception is that people are in Indigenous gangs for life as most people are in it for a short term.
“When we look at who is or isn’t in an Indigenous gang, mostly what we see are a lot of individuals performing in a specific way to get their names known to get into the gang,” he explained.
Both males and females engaged in gangs perform masculinity_ conveying a tough, non-emotional image they believe society expects, he said. Masculinity is tied to the concept that toughness brings power, which brings money, which brings respect, Henry said.
The idea that people join gangs because it gives them a sense of belonging is simplistic, he added. Rather, many already have a sense of belonging because they are born into, or have kinship links to, gang-involved individuals. What they want is power, money and respect.
This analysis was also born from his time in Prince Albert.
“I had family members who were being identified as gang members, or as those who were seen as deviants by just simply what they were wearing, and I thought that there has to be more to it than that,” he said.
“That is where my interest piqued and (I started) looking at how do schools and agencies define and utilize the term `gang’ for resources. How do police and communities use the term for resources for certain things and so forth,” he said.
Indigenous gangs are individual entities that are often linked by name only, Henry said. However, gang members across the Prairies are frequently linked through kinship or such ties as shared foster care residency in the past.
Henry wants to bring together community agencies from Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and even Thunder Bay, Ont., to share information and build a strong Prairie Survivance Network to help develop effective local policies to improve justice and overall community well-being.
“By the end of five years, I hope to understand the street lifestyle from the ground up, and expand the Prairie network to other national and international partnerships in places like Australia and New Zealand with whom I’m already doing some work,” he said in a press release.
Michael Oleksyn is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the PRINCE ALBERT DAILY HERALD. The LJI program is federally funded.