Numerous issues impeding the success of Northern indigenous men were detailed in a new research project, which aimed to identify why men are underrepresented in areas of learning and work across the North.

What about the men?

The research project, led by Ilitaqsiniq - Nunavut Literacy Council, Yukon Literacy Coalition, Northwest Territories Literacy Council, and Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador, aimed to determine what success looks like for Northern indigenous men, and what barriers to success they encounter. (Ilitaqsiniq - Nunavut Literacy Council)

The project, titled "What About the Men?" was jointly produced by the literacy councils of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Researchers used interviews, questionnaires, and workshops across the province and territories in order to come to their findings, which they hope to use to identify new avenues for literacy development.

Shelley Tulloch, the report's lead author, says that the idea for the project came from Quluaq Pilakapsi, an elder in Nunavut who works with the literacy council.

"She... was watching the programs that were being developed for women, to re-engage women in learning and employment," says Tulloch. "And she noticed that the marginalized people in communities are not just women. In many communities, men were generally absent in certain areas of learning and work.

"And so her question was: 'what about the men? How can we help the men?'"

Decolonizing education, employment key to success

Tulloch says that the report's results mirrored those of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its final report in December.

"Northern indigenous men's underrepresentation in certain areas of learning and work are co-symptoms of ongoing intergenerational impacts of colonizing practices," she said. "By that, we mean the behaviours that come out of attitudes of cultural superiority."

Shelley Tulloch

Shelley Tulloch, the report's lead author, says that literacy needs to be approached holistically in Northern communities: 'developing and practicing literacy skills can be part of healing, and is facilitated by healing.' (CBC)

The report states that many Northern indigenous men have "multiple visions of who they should be and want to be," with feelings of a pull towards both getting education and a job, and living a traditional lifestyle on the land. According to the report, these goals often reinforce one another, but they are perceived as "mutually exclusive."

Among other factors, the report points to "colonizing institutions" like schools and workplaces, as barriers to achieving success in employment. Despite the best efforts of the institutions, in some cases, the past — such as the legacy of residential schools — is too powerful to overcome.

"The traumatic associations that many Indigenous men still have with schooling make it more challenging to return to school," reads the report, "and/or to support and motivate their sons to attend and continue in a schooling system that is still foreign and that they mistrust."

 'Literacy needs to be understood holistically'

The report also focused on success stories — Northern indigenous men who had achieved success in life and work, by their own definition. 

"What we found was across the board in communities, there were many men who were resilient and positively engaged in learning and work," said Tulloch. "And what set these men ... apart was an experience of personal freedom, despite the oppressive context."

The report stated that Northern indigenous men were most successful when their education and employment lined up with their personal values — through factors like personal healing, or connectedness to their land or community — lessons that Tulloch says could help create a roadmap for increasing literacy rates in the North.

"Our main recommendation is to find ways to approach literacy development holistically," she said. "Developing and practicing literacy skills can be part of healing, and is facilitated by healing.

"It can be part of cultural practices and cultural programs. Cultural programs are really motivating for northern indigenous men, so they're very effective vehicles for teaching literacy.