Indigenous men in Canada who have left a gang or street lifestyle face severe identity issues, says one academic.

Robert Henry, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, said gangs provide Indigenous men with a space that helps them develop an identity outside of the stereotypes they typically face.

"When we look at how Indigenous men have been constructed in society and the racialized terms as being the drunk or person on welfare, the gang challenges that," he said.

The street life mentality is driven by the idea of gaining money, power and respect, said Henry. This frame of reference allows people to feel independent of the colonial image of Indigenous men.

"What it is to be men is really based on a white supremacist, hetero-normative, patriarchal ideal," said Robert Innes, professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

Both he and Henry were featured in an event at First Nations University of Canada earlier this week in which they explored the topics of masculinity and Indigenous identity.    

Indigenous masculinity and identity

Innes is also the co-editor of Indigenous Men and Masculinities.

'When we look at moving out of the gang, how do we redefine who we are as a person without losing the value that we associate to ourselves?' -Robert Henry

The book explores the effects historical contact with Europeans had on Indigenous men and how patriarchy has been imposed on Indigenous people. Innes said Indigenous men "internalize the notion that they are not as good as white people and white men in particular."

He added that it's important for Indigenous men to see themselves as equal to white men and be confident in who they are.

Book Cover

The book is taking on commonly held misconceptions about what it means to be an indigenous man. (Courtesy of University of Manitoba Press)

While the sense of self that is formed when part of a gang can offer some relief to these identity issues, it's lost when a person leaves street life, said Henry:

"When we look at moving out of the gang, how do we redefine who we are as a person without losing the value that we associate to ourselves?"

Henry's concern with healthy masculinity is that labelling it Indigenous or non-Indigenous has created a division of sorts. He said, instead, we should look for integration between the two perspectives.

"Not every man follows a traditional path," said Henry.

"I think the bigger question is looking at not finding ways that are better but understanding the impact of colonialism on people's perception of identity, and how that's shaped the ways [of] healing."