Robert (Bobby) Henry

Inside Aboriginal gangs

They spotted him while he was out with his wife at a Regina mall. Five men from a rival gang started making trouble, chasing him outside and down a back alley. Steps ahead of his pursuers, he ducked into a car.

By Michael Robin

"So what did he do?" asked Robert (Bobby) Henry in discussing his research into men in Saskatchewan's Aboriginal gangs. "I know what I would do; I'd be in the vehicle and I'd be gone," Henry said. "They had knives; there's five of them—I'm outta there. Not him.

His reputation was on the line." Henry's story continued: the pursued man grabbed a knife from the car, tied a leather jacket around his arm and turned to meet his pursuers. When it was over, the five attackers were on the ground and he, despite two stab wounds, was still standing, as was his reputation as one of the toughest knife fighters in the city.

Henry spent the past four and half years as a PhD candidate in the Department of Native Studies gaining insights about men in Aboriginal gangs—their culture, their behaviour, how they came to be in gangs, and how they got out. He hopes the knowledge can inform interventions to help Aboriginal youth leave gang life, or avoid it altogether.

Henry worked closely with STR8-UP, a Saskatoon organization created to support those looking to exit the gang lifestyle. Although Henry is Métis, from Prince Albert, he said his was a middle-class upbringing and it took time to prove himself both to STR8-UP and to the men associated with it. At first, no one would open up to him, having had experience with researchers in the past who would ask their questions, poke into their lives, and vanish.

So Henry took a different approach, adopting a photo voice research method: the men would be given cameras and asked to capture images that mattered to them, images that said something about their lives. The photos, and the stories that went with them, would then go into a high-quality, printed book.

The proposal intrigued his prospective research subjects; it would make their stories real, something they could own and share. Still, they were suspicious, explained Henry. "They asked me, ‘so what are you getting out of all this?' I told them, ‘I get to listen to your stories which will help me to get my PhD'." Henry successfully defended his PhD earlier this year.

Now gathered into a book titled Brighter Days Ahead, the images and stories he collected offer a glimpse of a world rarely seen or understood by outsiders.

It is a place of hypermasculinity, Henry said, of unrelenting violence, harsh codes of behaviour and punishment, but also of honour. Men spoke of the psychological toll of never showing weakness, of putting on the face to look dangerous, he continued. Henry shared the words of a former gang member: "You hear the brothers at night, some of them, you hear them crying in the cells, and when you do, you hear a lot of people saying, ‘Who's that crying? Who's that little girl?' You know, that crying stops. That's what I mean by putting on the mask to wear, to belong, to be accepted."

Gang life starts early, Henry explained. Former members spoke to him of abusive home lives and indoctrination into violence from the time they entered school; one took a photo of his former schoolyard to illustrate. "Here's where a lot of this started for (gang members)," Henry said. "Not at eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, but at four and five where they were learning how to fight on the school ground because they were getting bullied. So they started to fight back, and that's how they started to build their reputation.

"Success is possible in the gangs, he said, but it is success with limits unfamiliar to most people. A gang member might have tens of thousands of dollars from the drug trade or other criminal activity, but no easy way to spend it. One does not walk onto a car lot with $50,000 in cash to buy a brand new vehicle but "you'll see these guys driving a cheap older car that they bought with cash, then they trick it out with thousands of dollars of accessories." In some ways, men behave with honour and responsibility that would not be unfamiliar in broader society.

Henry recounted how one gang member created his own $300,000 insurance policy for his wife and child. Facing a jail term of several years, he directed his wife to caches of money in locations around the city, all of it set aside to tide over the family while he was incarcerated. The impulse to act honourably or take responsibility, said Henry, shows one possible road out of gangs. It shows the desire to be thought of as a man, one worthy of respect.

"Prevention and intervention programs must focus on masculinity as a causal factor," Henry concluded. "We have to understand masculinity is one of the main things motivating them. The performance that (gang members) are doing, it's a specialized, localized performance but it's something that we need to redevelop for community, or that communities must develop for themselves."