Indigenous Street Youth and the Impacts of Settler Colonialism: An interview with Dr. Robert Henry

Métis scholar Dr. Robert Henry has worked alongside Indigenous street youth and gang members across the Prairie Provinces for more than a decade. An Assistant Professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the Department of Indigenous Studies, Dr. Henry uses an innovative and collaborative research methodology called photovoice which effectively allows participants to tell—and show—their own stories, in their own ways. The visual narratives that emerge are intimate and moving, often showing lesser-told stories of hope and resilience, complexity and challenge, that define these marginalized communities.

As part of our ongoing Speaker Series, IRSI is delighted to be presenting Dr. Henry on Monday, November 18th, 5:30 – 7:30 PM at the Native Education College Longhouse in Vancouver (see link below). Communications Coordinator and work learn student Alina Yalmanian caught up with Dr. Henry a few days before his presentation at the IRSI Speaker Series and asked him about his work.



IRSI: Can you describe the focus of your research collaboration with Indigenous street youth and gang members?

It’s a community engaged approach that’s based off of an Indigenous paradigm about relational accountability. It’s about building relationships through forms of responsibility, respect, relevancy and reciprocity, but also understanding the notion of ethical space or how individuals engage in power dynamics within those spaces. We have to understand the power of the social or cultural capital we carry with us.

IRSI: What led you to work with individuals engaged in street lifestyles?

When I was an educational assistant—I was 19 years old—the term “gang” was being used in my community of Prince Albert. The police were identifying a lot of things that just didn’t make sense to me, and they were using specific clothing and hand gestures to do that, without understanding the cultural impact that it was having. Also, they weren’t identifying the same sort of behaviors in other areas of the city – they were really focusing on Aboriginal kids. That’s how I got engaged in this, trying to understand how we, as a community, identify those gang behaviors compared to when other youth do them. How I have grown from there is by trying to work with communities and community partners, asking them what they would like to do for research or what research is for them, how to develop a research output that makes sense to them and give it back to the community in a specific way.

IRSI: You use some innovative research methods, including photovoice. Can you maybe describe what photovoice is exactly and why you chose it?

Photovoice is community engaged or community-based, and a research method that gives individuals who are understood as being marginalized the opportunity to have power within the conversation. So, rather than researchers directing the questions to the individual, it’s the participants that are actually bringing the researchers into the gaze of what they’re understanding. The photographs become a mechanism for myself to understand what street life style is, how Indigenous identity is connected to street gangs specifically, and how street gangs help frame notions of masculinity.

I don’t use photo voice in the traditional way that Caroline Wang and others have. It’s a modified process, because when we’re looking at individuals engaged in street lifestyles, we have to work where they’re at, and some individuals are unable or don’t want to participate in certain components of photovoice, because part of it is to come back as a group and discuss these photographs in a group setting. So, rather than not, I work with individuals in a specific way to share their stories, by not having the individuals in the story being present at the same time as others. That’s why I use photovoice to create an emotive response. I have found that individuals seem to have a rehearsed narrative that they want to continue to talk about, but when you ask individuals to show what that life is like or what they’re trying to explain or tell you, it creates a stronger and more emotional connection to what they’re saying. That moves the narrative or the interview in multiple directions, and as a researcher, you just have to be able to go with it and try and work with individuals as they move through these spaces.

IRSI: Are there any research outcomes that surprised you?

I don’t know if there’s anything that really surprised me at the end of everything, because when you start listening to the narrative, you sit down and talk with individuals even prior to any of the research. You begin to see different things if you’re paying attention, and so nothing really surprised me. What more surprised me is the way in which we have understood street gangs and street lifestyles. It’s not the narratives of the people that have surprised me. It’s more the ways in which Western research, Western theories and Western understanding have misinterpreted a lot of the narrative and created pathologized and positivistic responses, rather than understanding that [people are] finding multiple ways to survive resisting research across different spaces. That is really sort of lude process moving back and forth of being involved, not being involved, and knowing when you are involved. That to me was more of a surprise out of everything: the ways in which research particularly frame individuals in these spaces.

IRSI: Do you think that your research supports positive changes in the lives of participants? If so, how?

That’s a really big question. I think at times it does, and it gives them an opportunity to share their story. It depends on what we’re doing with the narrative – with Brighter Days Ahead, we created a book where the proceeds go back to the agency [STR8 Up]. I’m doing another one with women, working with another community partner in Winnipeg, and we’re developing a calendar to be sold with the proceeds going back to the partner again. For individuals themselves, I think as an immediate response, it helps them, it provides opportunities to talk. But long term, I’m not too sure – I don’t know if any research for individuals is really positive in a long term piece, but I know short term it is.

IRSI: Do any of your collaborations with Indigenous gang members shape your current research? What are you working on currently?

It shapes the actual way in which I understand the individuals who are engaged in street life style. The whole point was trying to understand what was happening and what was going on from their perspective. From speaking with individuals and getting to know individuals, it changed the way I understood things, going back and utilizing other Indigenous theories, especially in the humanities like the notion of surviving from Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabeg), the way in which individuals survive resisting research. If you look at the process that individuals go through prior to getting in the gang, getting out of the gang and trying to live a healthy life – this is a process that goes against the traditional understanding of street gangs or the criminal justice approach, where individuals are gang members 24 hours, 7 days a week. In reality, it’s way more complex than that. This is where my research is going: trying to understand how individual build relationships, develop their notions of who they are as individuals, specifically in and around masculinity and the use of masculinity in street gangs. This is for male and female identified gang members: they all talk about the notion of being at the top, independent, emotionless and how you had to keep that sort of face moving forward.

I work with other researchers, specifically those who are also partnering with community partners, and we held a research gathering a couple of years ago, where we brought together individuals from New Zealand, Australia and across western Canada. Every researcher who was there had to bring their community partner, and it was this idea that they had to work with the community partner within a specific way to show what is happening. So that’s where the research is going. It’s just finding different ways and not asking questions, but just trying to understand ways in which policy can be developed or improved, how programming can be improved, and how we can better theorise the experiences of colonialism and its impact on Indigenous peoples and how the street becomes a space to challenge some of this as well.

Register for Dr. Henry’s event HERE. Note: registrations accepted until noon on November 18th, 2019.