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For Indigenous men, masculinity can be a 'glass ceiling' of sorts, professor says

The idea of what it is to be a man is based on "white" ideals and the colonized concept of manhood, says Rob Innes, head of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
Rob Innes, who co-edited the book, takes on commonly held misconceptions about what it means to be an Indigenous man. (Submitted by Rob Innes/University of Manitoba Press)
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The idea of what it is to be a man is based on "white" ideals and the colonized concept of manhood, which Indigenous men may never achieve, says the head of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

"It becomes difficult for Indigenous men to rise up on that hierarchy," Rob Innes, an associate professor and member of the Cowessess First Nation, told Unreserved guest host Waubgeshig Rice.

"It's sort of like a glass ceiling."

In Western culture, the range of masculine identities has to fit the idea of the white "heteronormative patriarchy," according to Innes, who co-edited the book, Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration.

"If it doesn't adhere to those ideals, then these men are then seen as deficient."

Negative stereotypes

Accordingly, residential schools have had a huge impact on how Indigenous masculine behaviours are expressed, says Innes, pointing to the church's involvement and views on homosexuality.

But for those who did not go to residential schools, stereotypes can exert a powerful influence, he says.

What a lot of Indigenous men have is a lot of shame.- Rob Innes

Innes argues that stereotypes, which depict Indigenous men as being savage, violent, and dangerous, become internalized by Indigenous men "through education, through everyday interaction with white people."

The repercussions of that internalization can be incarceration and death by homicide, Innes says.

While Indigenous adults represented about four per cent of the Canadian adult population in 2016-17, they accounted for 27 per cent of the federal prison population, according to Statistics Canada.

"It becomes really difficult to start thinking long term in terms of planning out your life," Innes said.

Redefining masculinity

Similarly, discussing Indigenous masculinity can be a complicated topic within and outside of Indigenous communities, Innes says.

"What a lot of Indigenous men have is a lot of shame. They're carrying a lot of shame of what they've done to people, what they've done to their loved ones and what has been done to them as children."

"But for many years they're taught not to deal with that shame, not to acknowledge it. And of course that comes out in multiple ways, in negative ways."

 

Within the Indigenous community, we don't really want to talk about this.- Rob Innes

Innes recalled talking to a class of Indigenous students in 2015, after the RCMP reported that 70 per cent of murdered Indigenous women were killed by Indigenous men. The revelation drew the ire of Indigenous leaders and others at the time.

When Innes asked the students what they thought of the statistic, "every one of them said they believed that's the case. So I said, if that's the case, shouldn't we as Indigenous community talk about this more?"

All of them said no, he says, adding they were concerned it would perpetuate existing negative stereotypes.

But increasingly, there are spaces where Indigenous men are coming together and talking about what they've done and what has been done to them, Innes says.

He noted the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendships Centres' "I am a kind man" program as an example where Indigenous men and youth work to end violence against Indigenous women.

"This is kind of a new area," said Innes. "Within the Indigenous community, we don't really want to talk about this."

"What's happening now is that there are men who are coming out and talking about this stuff. It's still a small percentage of Indigenous men, but it's starting to grow more and more."


Written by Ruby Buiza. Produced by Anna Lazowski