U of Sask. researcher hopes to improve public understanding of Indigenous gangs, street lifestyle

Robert Henry is working with two non-profit organizations in the Prairies to create a gender and age-representative task force made up of people with gang experience.

Canada Research Chair Robert Henry's project getting $120,000 annually for next 5 years

Robert Henry, who is Métis, is leading a research project intended to get a better understanding of Indigenous gangs and street lifestyle. (Submitted by Robert Henry)

There is a plethora of research looking at gangs globally, but when it comes to Indigenous gangs in the Prairies, Robert Henry says there is a lot to learn.

Henry, a University of Saskatchewan Indigenous studies assistant professor, is leading a project that aims to improve public understanding about street gangs and street lifestyles through community engagement research, with a goal of informing policies that can help combat high rates of incarceration among Indigenous people in the Prairie provinces.

"We know a lot about street gangs globally, but that doesn't seem to be making any difference here in the Prairies," Henry, who is Métis, told Afternoon Edition host Garth Materie. "We need to look at how we are unique and what are the reasons that people are becoming involved?"

Henry is a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous justice and well-being. The project will receive $120,000 annually for five years, with an option to extend research to a 10-year term.

He is working with two non-profit organizations in the Prairies to create a gender and age-representative task force made up of people with gang experience.

Committee members will teach Henry about local street politics and economies.

Saskatoon organization helping conduct the research

Str8 Up, a Saskatoon based group that helps people exit gangs, is one of the organizations working alongside Henry. The other organization involved is Ogijiita Pimatisiwin Kinamatwin in Winnipeg. 

Russ Misskey, SRT8 Up's executive director, said the structure of this research project is a step in the right direction, compared to past work he has seen.

''They've [researchers] always wanted to come interview and connect with these individuals, but it tends to just be that interview process," Misskey said.

Misskey is excited that people with lived gang experience will assist the research all the way through the project.

"They are the ones who will meet with the researchers and they will be trained to be facilitators," Misskey said. "They help form the questions, develop the process and learn the skill sets of doing that research."

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Misskey said having community members with lived gang experience conducting parts of the research creates an easier connection point for members involved in street gangs or lifestyle to contribute to the project.

"They're better at facilitating, recognizing the needs and identifying the appropriate questions," Misskey said. "They can help with the recruitment of the individuals and getting the word out there when research projects are needing to have that input."


Henry, who is also the executive director of the Saskatchewan Network Environments of Indigenous Health Research, listed multiple reasons that Indigenous people might join street gangs, including money, power, respect, feeling ostracized by the community and family connections. 

Henry said there are misconceptions about Indigenous street gangs in the region.

"I think one misconception is that once you're in a gang, you're in a gang forever," Henry said. "When we actually look at this the amount of time individuals spend within the gang is very small."

Henry said despite time within the gang being typically short, it's hard to escape street economies such as the sales of drugs, stolen goods or sex work.

"How do you survive if you're unable to get food, you need to find ways to do that and this is an economy that is continuously there?" he said.

LISTEN | Robert Henry spoke with host Garth  Materie on The Afternoon Edition: 
A University of Saskatchewan assistant professor is leading a new research project that aimed at getting a better understanding of Indigenous gangs, as well as how and why young people get in AND out of street life. Professor Robert Henry talked with Garth Materie about the project, what he hopes to learn and how he plans to get young people with gang experience to talk. INTRO

Hoping to lower incarceration rates for Indigenous people 

Earlier this month CBC reported that four out of five people in Saskatchewan-run prisons are Indigenous, according to the provincial Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety. The ministry said that was from a one-day snapshot and that at any given time 75 to 80 per cent of inmates are Indigenous.

Henry wants to understand the complexities of gang involvement through a lens of what he calls "survivance" —a term that encompasses survival, resistance and resurgence.

"Survivance is a strength-based approach to understanding the process of an individual becoming involved and leaving street gangs," Henry said. "Some Indigenous individuals use gangs to survive settler colonialism and see gangs as a resistance space." 

Henry hopes the research can inform policy change on the municipal, provincial and federal levels, and create a model for non-profits looking to support people involved in gangs or street lifestyles.


Will McLernon is an online journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. If you have a tip or a story idea, send him an email at

With files from The Afternoon Edition