Indigenous Men and Masculinities Studies: An Emergent Field

by Kim Anderson & Robert Alexander Innes

This month our co-edited book, Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration will be released. Although a few of the authors in the book have written extensively on Indigenous masculinities elsewhere, the publication of this book marks the public coming out, as it were, of the field of Indigenous men and masculinities studies. This field has grown from many places, crossing over and between the interdisciplinary boundaries of Indigenous and gender studies and building on Indigenous feminist and queer studies. The book’s release will add to the growing body of literature dealing with social issues involving Indigenous men; issues which do not get a lot of public attention.

Within the limited public attention to the “legacies, identities and regeneration” of Indigenous men, we find media that typically misses the necessary information to place discussions about Indigenous men into proper context. The way in which Indigenous men have been included in media discussions of missing and murdered Indigenous women is a prime example. Indigenous men have for the most part been absent from these discussions until relatively recently when Bernard Valcourt, former Minister of (the formerly named) Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada told the Ottawa Citizen in December 2014 that “if we’re honest here,” it is obvious that “there’s a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves…So, you know, if the guys grow up [on the reserve] believing that women have no rights, that’s how they are treated.” The day after Valcourt’s Ottawa Citizen interview, Ojibwe lawyer Joan Jack wrote an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press, stating that “Aboriginal men kill aboriginal women and girls, rape aboriginal women and girls, beat aboriginal women and girls, and no one is really talking about the moose in our living room.” In March 2015 APTN News reported that Valcourt had told several chiefs that Indigenous men murdered 70% of the Indigenous women identified in the RCMP report. A month later, APTN reported that the RCMP had corroborated Valcourt’s figures. These types of comments point to Indigenous men as the cause of the violence that Indigenous women face, and stress that if Indigenous men acknowledge and address the physical and sexual harm they inflict on Indigenous women, then the level of violence those women endure will decrease greatly. These reports came at a time when calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women had gained much traction, in large part due to the death of Tina Fontaine. Although Jack strongly supports a national inquiry, her comments along with Valcourt’s assertion and it’s confirmation by the RCMP fueled the anti-national inquiry sentiment.

There have, however, been a few news reports that have raised the issue of the number of Indigenous men who have gone missing or have been murdered. Two articles that focused on this appeared in 2014: one that in Vice Online News in May and the other in the Toronto Star in August. Both articles acknowledged that the high number Indigenous men who have gone missing or have been murdered was not widely known. Both news articles implied the need to consider including Indigenous men in an inquiry into missing and murdered women.

More recently, Adam Jones, a political scientist at the UBC Okanagan (who has no expertise in Indigenous research but is a highly regarded comparative genocide studies scholar), wrote an op-ed piece for the National Post. A few weeks ago, Jones appeared on the CBC radio show Unreserved. In both the op-ed and the radio show, Jones mentioned that though rates of violence experienced by Indigenous men are much higher than those of Indigenous women, the rates are seldom mentioned in the media. He explained the reason behind this as follows: “The campaign to highlight the victimization and extermination of aboriginal women has become a feminist cause célèbre (including an aboriginal-feminist one), in a way that has suffocated consideration of even more pervasive patterns of violence among and against all aboriginal Canadians, including men and boys” (2015).

The statistics do point to Indigenous men having a much higher murder rate than Indigenous women. According to the Toronto Star article, Statistics Canada has noted that between 1980 and 2012 there were 1,750 Indigenous men murder victims and 750 Indigenous women. As I speculated in a commentary I wrote for the Aboriginal Policy Studies journal, given that the RCMP 2014 report on missing and murdered Indigenous women identified 1,017 Indigenous women murder victims, there is a real possibility that the figure for Indigenous men could be as high as 2,000. If so, that would mean in the past 30-year period, over 3,000 Indigenous people have been murdered. In the 2015 update, the RCMP added another 32 murder cases and stated that 73% of the victims were murdered by either their current or former spouses or by family members, implicating Indigenous men as the majority of murderers of Indigenous women. Add in the number of murderers who were acquaintances and the figure reaches over 90%. Acquaintances have been assumed to be Indigenous.

The lack of the relevant information in these media reports means that the public does not have the context needed to gain a better understanding of the issue. There are many questions about the RCMP figures that should raise red flags for people. For example, do johns fall under the category of acquaintances? And does the number of partners and former partners take into account that Indigenous people marry non-Indigenous at high rate and therefore many spouses and former spouses are not Indigenous? For the public to gain a better understanding of who the killers are requires the RCMP to release more information about them.

Nonetheless, there is still the possibility that a large number and perhaps majority of the killers are Indigenous men. Even if only 30% of the killers are Indigenous men, that would still represent over 300 female murder victims. What is missing from most of the stories is any discussion of what has lead Indigenous men to murder and to be murdered at a high rate. Without providing this information or stating that this information needs to be obtained, these stories feed into a gender bias that many Canadians have of Indigenous men. That is, “Indigenous men murder because they are inherently violent and therefore we really do not need to have an inquiry because we know who has killed the women and why.” This of course ignores the fact that no matter how many Indigenous men are murderers, what is known for sure is that non-Indigenous men have killed a significant number of Indigenous women.

In his op-ed, Jones does discuss some of the factors that lead to high levels of violence among Indigenous men. He calls for a “well-researched inquiry” to look at various issues caused by the colonial process, demonstrating he has an understanding of the negative impact colonization has had on marginalized people.

His insistence that Indigenous feminists are the reason murders of Indigenous men have not received attention highlights his lack of knowledge of the Indigenous context in Canada. He does not mention that the relatively recent high profile of the missing and murdered Indigenous women is due to the efforts of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), who have been working on this issue since at least 2003. Jones’ assertion that non-Indigenous women have made MMIW an issue flies in the face of the reality that this has been a movement led by Indigenous women (many who would not consider themselves to be feminists) and the families that lost loved ones. In his interview on Unreserved, he told host Rosanna Deerchild “that it concerns me that Aboriginal feminists have towed this line and advanced this project…it is not clear to me why they would not want to see similar attention paid to their [Indigenous men] particular and perhaps even greater plight.”

Deerchild challenged Jones’ assertion by informing him that it has been the “families and friends of missing and murdered Indigenous women [that] made this an issue after relentless activism, after rallies, after movements, like the Sisters in Spirit…” His response—that we should not set it up so that women advocate for women and men for men—fails to acknowledge that this is not currently the case. There are a number of Indigenous men working as individuals and in organizations to advocate for ending violence against Indigenous women. Paul Lacert started “moose hide” campaign to raise awareness, and Chris Moyah, a former gang member has gone on walks toward ending violence against Indigenous women. The Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin–I am a Kind Man program developed by the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres has been taken up in other provinces by organizations keen on developing initiatives where men can show leadership in ending violence against women. In addition, there are many women advocating for men, including Beverly Jacobs and Michele Audette, both prominent leaders and former NWAC presidents, who have said that an inquiry should include examining the violence experienced by Indigenous men.

Indigenous men’s issues are just now coming onto the public’s radar. This is in a large part due to the attention paid to ending violence against Indigenous women. It is due to the work Indigenous women have done in raising the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. However, this new public attention to men is also due to the fact that each year there are more and more Indigenous men who are seeking ways to recover from their traumatic, dysfunctional, and violent experiences (of course, this is not to suggest that all Indigenous men suffered from this). Many are becoming role models to assist other men in turning their lives around.

At this time of emerging awareness and commitment to end violence against Indigenous people in general, it is not surprising that a critical mass of Indigenous Studies scholars are now taking their interests in Indigenous men’s issues (many based on their own experiences) to their research questions, and that this first anthology on Indigenous men and masculinities is being released. The book is international in scope, but will be especially relevant in Canada at this time of bringing in a new federal government that promises to address social issues within Indigenous communities. The chapters in the book cover a wide range of subject matters written by people who are specialists in Indigenous research, and represents a glimpse into the kinds of topics been tackled in this emerging field.

Robert Alexander Innes is a Plains Cree member of Cowessess First Nation. He holds a PhD in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. He is the author of Elder Brother and the Law of the People.

Kim Anderson is a Cree/Métis educator. She is an Associate Professor in Indigenous Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, and is the author of A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood and Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings, and Story Medicine.

University of Manitoba Press is grateful for the support it receives for its publishing program from the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund; the Canada Council for the Arts; the Manitoba Department of Culture, Heritage, and Tourism; the Manitoba Arts Council; and the Aid to Scholarly Publishing Programme.