Gender stereotypes among high school level Mi’gmaq youth

Entry into secondary school corresponds approximately to entry into adolescence. This period, which often begins at the end of primary school, is a time of great upheaval for young people, bringing about major changes in their identity as well as physical, physiological, hormonal and emotional evolution. These changes are caused by the sex hormones that carry the child into adulthood. During this period, known as puberty, growth accelerates and the body gradually prepares itself for the acquisition of its reproductive function. While the physical changes are obvious, major metabolic, intellectual, social and emotional changes are also occurring at the same time. This process causes adolescents to question and define their identity, sexual and romantic attractions and relationships to the world.

To find out more, read this article on the stages of puberty for girls and boys:

Not only are these profound transformations analyzed and perceived (Vinel: 2014) through the lens of gender, but the experience of young people is also determined and guided by their more or less strong adherence to the gender stereotypes that have surrounded them since birth. In this section, we will explore the influence of gender stereotypes on the different stages of development in adolescence, while shedding light over the specific traits of Mi’gmaq youth when it is applicable. If we possess the results of many in-depth inquiries about elements of Quebec’s non-Native teenagers’ lives habits, school experience, career aspirations and psychological experiences, the same may not be said of the literature about First Peoples youth of the same age, on whom quantitative date is almost nonexistent (Perron & Côté, 2015). We are therefore relying on studies conducted in other First Nations of Quebec as well as within Mi’gmaq communities of elsewhere in Mi’gma’gi.

Gender socialization and gender stereotypes

From the 17th century to the present day, a great deal of research has posited the existence of a whole range of differences between the brains of men and women. In recent decades, and particularly since the advent of brain imaging, many of these ideas have been refuted in favour of the thesis of cerebral, cognitive and psychological diversity, regardless of gender (Jordan-Young: 2011, Fine 2010, Vidal 2013). Thus, there would appear to be little or no biological basis for cognitive differences between men and women, with the exception of functions related to reproduction (Vidal, 2017), and especially there would seem to be no specific traits found only in men or only in women (CSE, 1999).

Rather, it is through learning, experience and imitation that children and adolescents gradually develop their skills, preferences and strengths (Kass et al., 1998; Spelke, 2005). For example, children who are strongly encouraged and stimulated in motor activities will build the skills and brain connections they need for such activities. This process speaks to the brain’s plasticity; in other words, neural connections in the brain change as a result of experience and lifelong learning. This also means that it is possible to develop new neuronal connections, and therefore new learning, that our experiences have not allowed us to develop so far. Since development in children, and therefore that of their brain, is linked to their socialization, we notice cognitive differences between girls and boys because socialization is strongly gendered. Indeed, children will integrate various cultural elements (values, norms, beliefs, rules of conduct) according to their gender since adult behaviours and social models differ depending on whether the child is a girl or a boy. Girls and boys do not learn the same values, norms, rules and beliefs and are not stimulated in the same way. Much of this differentiated socialization takes place unconsciously. It has the effect of reproducing gender stereotypes, which are reductive clichés that associate women, men, girls and boys with two separate worlds by assigning them distinct characteristics without regard to their individuality (SCF: 2018).

Examples of gender stereotypes

Source: Secrétariat à la condition féminine, 2018

Girls are more docile and seek to please.Boys listen less to instructions and are less attentive.
Girls will sometimes sulk longer and for no particular reason.Conflicts are more easily resolved with boys; it's less dramatic.
Girls are calmer and more patient.Boys take up more space and are constantly on the go.
Girls are more persistent.Boys want to understand everything and are creative.
Girls are more manipulative. They play on feelings.Exchanges between boys are more direct and violent.
Girls are more fragile.Boys don't cry.
Girls are interested in fashion, arts and boys.Boys like video games and sports.
Girls are more perfectionist and better at cleaning.Boys are messier and less involved in household chores.
Girls are good in languages.Boys are good in math.

By the time they reach adolescence, young people have generally already integrated gender stereotypes quite well and their attitudes, skills and values begin to diverge to a greater extent. These differences, which are at least in part the product of socialisation, thus intervene at all stages of identity construction during adolescence. They come into play not only in how adolescents are considered by others in their milieu, but also in the expectations that young people set for themselves.

Identity construction in Mi’gmaq adolescents

Psychologically, the central task of adolescence is to build one’s identity in the broadest sense (CSE, 1999). It is divided into three main operations: the construction of one’s own identity (who I am, what I believe in), the construction of identity in relation to social relationships (who I am in relation to others), and the construction of gender identity (how I define my gender and to whom I’m attracted).

Who am I?

Adolescence is the pivotal period in the development of the concept of self. During this time, through examining values, future prospects and beliefs, young people become aware of and make choices about their specificity and their particularities.

In addition to these questionings, indigenous students must also contend with the necessity to value their cultural identity, which becomes in a minority situation within the dominant culture of the student population if they must attend a school outside of their community. According to Martinez and Dukes (1997), indigenous youth’s pride in their ethnic identity is crucial in the development and maintenance of their self-esteem, self-confidence and academic success. They also state that adolescence is a particularly crucial time to become aware of their ethnic identity and to accept it. It is also at this point in life that youth will either take pride in their differences or accept them. In a project conducted in the Gespugwitg, Sugapune’gati, Esge’gewa’gi and Unama’gi districts, currently known as Nova Scotia, “both male and female Mi’kmaq youth described their identity as Mi’kmaq and spoke of their background with considerable pride” (McIntyre et coll., 2001, p. 5). The construction of cultural identity is thus an integral part of the identity construction work of teenagers trying to answer the question, “Who am I?”

One must note that even if the school is located in the community, “youth from Aboriginal communities are experiencing a loss of identity (Poirier, 2009), since all too often, their schools are copies of Quebec public schools with values and ways of doing things not reflecting theirs” (Pinette & Guillemette, 2016, p. 18).
Who am I in relation to others?

To work this out, adolescents build their identity in terms of two distinct but interrelated elements of socialization. Socialization sourced in the adult world (family, school, culture) will push adolescents to internalize social norms and rules. They will generally conform to gender role expectations based on the gender stereotypes conveyed in their socio-economic environment of origin (CSE, 2018). Yet, as many young Mi’gmaq of Gespeg’ewa’gi must pursue their high school education outside of their community, they can be confused between the stereotypical norms conveyed in their community and the ones presented in the school environment, experiencing a sort of forced immigration, a new socialization (Brabant, Croteau, Kistabish et Dumond, 2015).

Adolescents will also be greatly influenced by their peers, who are becoming increasingly important, especially as the quest for autonomy gets underway. Thus, the expectations and norms formulated in the juvenile world will largely influence adolescents as they build their identity and interpret their social roles (CSE, 2018). In this context, gender stereotypes will notably play a role in the acquisition of popularity capital among others (Richard, 2019).

Mi’gMaq students are, furthermore, at risk of experiencing racism and exclusion from their peers and the school staff (Baker, Varma et Tanaka, 2001; Perley, 2019), which can influence the way they will construct their identity in relation to others. The welcoming or the rejection of the Mi’gmaq students’ cultural identity can facilitate or complexify their identity construction during adolescence in regard to the questioning “Who am I in relation to others?”

How do I define my sexual being?

The hormonal, physical and physiological changes associated with puberty allow for the consolidation of gender identity. During this period, young people often tend to use gender stereotypes in their behavior, attitude and clothing to, unconsciously, consolidate their gender identity. This being said, while gender identity develops primarily between the ages of 2 and 7, it is important to remember that it continues to evolve and can change throughout life (Mieeya & Rouyer, 2013). Moreover, friendly and loving relational experiences often shed light on the types of attractions that develop. A young person’s sexual orientation is often determined in adolescence.

According to a conceptualization by John Robert Sylliboy (2019, p. 106), a two-spirited Mi’gmaq, the identity of a human being (L’nu) has four dimensions (emotional, spiritual, physical and mental) and encompasses both historical traditions and contemporary practices. Therefore, Mi’gmaq children develop their gender identity while balancing its spiritual dimension, rooted in cultural traditions, and its mental dimension that reflects contemporary practices. The physical dimension on its part is associated with sexual identity, for example the child’s biological sex, while the emotional dimension is associated with gender identity.

Figure 1. L’nu Model (Sylliboy, 2017)

Thus, to define their self-concept, young people will go through several experiences and experience a variety of needs during adolescence that will consolidate their psychosexual development and lead them towards greater autonomy.

From 12 to 14 years oldFrom 15 to 17 years old
Develop their own way of expressing their femininity or masculinityDevelopment of emotional and sexual intimacy and the place of desire
Want to be accepted by others (conformity and loyalty)Transition from adolescence to adulthood that involves greater responsibility for social and sexual roles
Great importance of friendsFeeling of invincibility and magical thinking
Desire for proximity (friends, lovers)Importance of the group of friends
Questions about their identityLove and sexual relationships
Tendency to test their limits (willingness to take risks) and those of authority figures (parents, teachers, counsellors, educators)
Growing interest in seduction, relationships, and sexual practices
Often deliberate contact with pornography

Source: Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux du Centre-sud de l’Île-de-Montréal

During this period, gender stereotypes can represent both constraints and spaces for exploration. These stereotypes are reinforced mainly by the family, school and the media. The rigidity of their models as well as the more or less strong adherence to them will influence young people’s gender mobility, and thus their ability to question or distance themselves from the expectations and norms attributed to their biological gender (Bouchard, St-Amant & Tondreau, 1997). Thus, the more their framework allows young people the possibility of reflection that challenges gender stereotypes, the greater their freedom to experience these stages of psychosexual development, with sufficient space to allow for authentic self-assertion, to be L’nu before being a boy or a girl (Sylliboy, 2017).

Consequently, it is possible for teenagers to wonder about their gender identity. And this is not necessarily directly tied to their interests (games, clothing, models, etc.). So it is important to avoid thinking, for instance, that because a boy is interested in a so-called feminine activity, he sees himself as a girl, or vice versa. On the contrary, youth commonly adopt behaviours that are socially attributed to the opposite sex and such behaviours have nothing to do with the gender to which a person identifies inwardly (SCF, 2018).

In many First Nations, people with a gender variant identity are called two spirits (Sylliboy, 2017). If the definition of the term “two-spirits” changes from one Nation to another, “Albert McLeod defines it as ‘a term used to describe aboriginal people who assume cross- or multiple-gender roles, attributes, dress and attitudes for personal, spiritual, cultural, ceremonial or social reasons.’” (Monkman, 2016). There is no specific word in Mi’gMaq to adequately represent this concept, although undergoing studies might determine which Mi’gmaq expression would represent it best (Sylliboy, 2019).

Identity construction in boys

During adolescence, young Mi’gmaq boys must construct their masculine identity while juggling with two very different conceptions of masculinity: the hegemonic masculinity inherited from colonization and the more traditional masculinity that was valued by indigenous societies before colonization, but that is nowadays impaired. The dominant masculinity, which is assuming that all men aspire to accumulate wealth, demonstrate independence and compete for status, clashes with the indigenous culture which, according to Getty (2013, p. 55),

values the collective and sharing interactions with others (Coyhis & Simoneli, 2008; Coyhis & Simonelli, 2005; Gone, 2011; Goodkind et al., 2010; Morgan & Freeman, 2009; Portman & Garrett, 2006). Ownership and accumulation of wealth are not important, whereas careful stewardship of the land and its living creatures is an imperative. All living beings are considered to be equal in a circle of life. In such a society, the kind of masculinity men aspire to achieve may be very different from that of the dominant society (Brokenleg, 2010, 2012).

In the occidental model of masculinity, identity construction in adolescents who identify as boys is marked by the need to prove their virility and is defined above all in relation to other boys and men. Moreover, this occupies considerable space in male social interactions throughout life. Thus, being with other boys or men can exacerbate this need to demonstrate strong virility and while being with family or loved ones can lessen it (Jeffrey, 2016). For adolescent males, the idea is to demonstrate that they are different from women, homosexuals or children. It is therefore fundamental for them to exclude any attitude, aptitude or behaviour that could be that of a girl (Jeffrey, 2016). We can for instance think of the expression of emotions. For some young indigenous boys, it can be very present as the expression of emotions related to stress management or to the experience of depression was traditionally taboo for many Aboriginal communities (Minde et Minde, 1995).

If identity construction in boys is defined above all in relation to other boys and men, this process turns out to be difficult for indigenous boys who are in a cultural minority among their peers and who face a persistent systemic racism, notably in Mi’gma’gi (Julian, 2016; Perley, 2019; Wilkins, 2017). In southern Gepe’gewa’gi and in Signigtewa’gi, currently known as New Brunswick, for instance, young Mi’gMaq boys attending non-native schools thus find themselves “immersed in the gender regimes of other boys and are subjected to their homophobic, heterosexist, and misogynist discourse (Connell, 1995, 2003; Davison, 2000). Coming from the reserve into a school where many of the white boys have attended school together for several years, Aboriginal boys often find themselves excluded and marginalized by the racist conduct of their peer groups (Beckett, 2003), their teachers, and the oppressive educational system that expects them to do poorly” (Getty, 2013, p. 56).

Within the dominant occidental culture, demonstrating often involves virility rites and tests that give rise to sometimes extreme behaviours where boys will try to reproduce the dominant models of virility as conveyed in movies, music videos, social media and video games (warrior, woman charmer, stuntman, adventurer, etc.). Yet, the masculinity models we find in the media are very often white. According to Getty (2013, p. 54), Aboriginal men in the media have rather been

presented as “innocent,” “simple,” “savage,” drunkards,’ “cruel,” “wise,” “lazy,” and multiple other epitaphs (Bird, 1999; Valaskakis, 2005). As children, they have been construed by white boys, teachers, and others in society as either deviant, poor, victims, or stereotyped as “noble savages” (Beckett, 2003, p. 83; Bird, 1999). Positioned as “the other,” their masculinity has been dominated by the hegemonic racist masculinities of white boys and men.

Thus, being a minority in a dominant white society valuing hegemonic masculinity, indigenous boys must construct their masculine identity from models that don’t look like them or, when they are represented, they are portrayed in a very negative and stereotypical way. They then find themselves developing a socially constructed racialized identity (Getty, 2013), far away from traditional indigenous masculinities.

The work of Bouchard and St-Amant (1996), even though it was realized in non-native contexts, suggests that, in general, boys adhere more to sexual stereotypes and remain closer to the proposed gender models than girls. It is interesting to note, moreover, that these gender models “give them social power” (Bouchard, St Amant & Tondreau, 1997). Overall, boys show a greater propensity for conformity in their definition of “male identity”. Boys are also more likely to approve of an unfair situation. Finally, through the various stands they take, many boys show a certain distancing from the school world (Bouchard, St-Amant & Tondreau, 1997). Finally, some authors argue that most adolescent transgressions—acts of defiance, insolence and physical violence, sexist or homophobic behaviour—can be understood not as behavioural problems per se, but as behaviours arising from rites to prove masculinity (Ayral 2011: 6 in Jeffrey 2016). Thus, the search for autonomy and the construction of identity in boys have little to do with the adult world.

In general, the editorial team favours the use of the word “gender” and gender stereotypes over sex and sexual stereotypes. This vocabulary refers to the social nature of gendered identity and we distance ourselves from binary (male and female) representations of the gender spectrum. However, some older authors and text writers did not use this vocabulary, which has become popular in recent decades. The texts of Bouchard, St-Amant and Tondreau are good examples of this. In order to faithfully cite the reported comments, we have maintained in this case the use of the term sexual stereotype.

Identity construction in girls

While boys construct their identities by paying attention to the reactions of other boys and men, girls are often more open and attentive to the adult world (CSE, 1999). Their identity construction is not, like that of boys, articulated around the obligation to prove their femininity, nor to distance themselves from anything perceived as masculine in order to be recognized as women. Girls’ identity construction has a strong relational dimension. In addition to the search for increasing autonomy that characterizes adolescence, they take into account their interpersonal relationships in the validation of their identity. They are more animated by the desire to be accepted by others and the adults’ gaze is more often taken into account (CSE, 1999). For example, girls are more likely to take action with a view to being accepted or even appreciated by the teacher and their peer group. This often results in girls being more compliant with the rules that emerge from the adult world.

While girls on average seem more concerned about being validated by the adult world, they adhere, on average, less to gender stereotypes than boys. They are more likely to show signs of resistance or rebellion with respect to the norms and values that stem from gender stereotypes and are less inclined to make judgments based on belonging to one gender or the other (Bouchard, St-Amant, 1996). According to Bouchard, St Amant and Tondreau (1997), this greater flexibility appears to be linked to a better understanding and awareness of gender relations, particularly because sexism works against them. However, a study conducted in many Mi’gmaq communities of the Gespugwitg, Sugapune’gati, Esge’gewa’gi and Unama’gi districts (Nova Scotia) revealed that gender roles were still quite rigid and that young Mi’gmaq girls living on a reserve felt pressure to take care of other children in the family (McIntyre et coll., 2003). We can then suppose that adherence to gender stereotypes is a little stronger within Mi’gmaq teenage girls than it is within non-native girls of the same age.

Obviously, not all boys and girls adhere to gender stereotypes in a uniform manner. Some will tend to adhere strongly to them, while others will distance themselves from them. Young people who do not conform to expected norms, values, and attitudes are more likely to experience exclusion or bullying at school (SCF, 2018).

Looking at the criteria that contribute to popularity during this period, we see that they are different for boys and girls. For girls, the most important traits in determining popularity are attractiveness to boys (being coveted by boys) and being fashionable. For boys, it is the unequivocal demonstration of heterosexual sexual desire and/or sexuality (boasting) and certain macho attitudes (denigrating girls) (Duncan, 2004; Mac an Ghaill, 2000; Richard, 2019). Adherence to gender stereotypes varies according to children’s socio-economic level. Children from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds adhere more strongly to gender stereotypes, as do those whose parents are less educated (Bouchard & St-Amant, 1996, CSE, 2018). This element is important to consider, particularly in the context where poverty is the primary determinant of school perseverance and whereas Mi’gmaq communities are much more disadvantaged.

In short, identity construction is the central task of adolescence. During this period, children lay down the foundations for the adults they will become. In this sense, this pivotal period, which is particularly governed by varying degrees of adherence to gender stereotypes, will have a decisive impact on several dimensions of adolescents’ lives: their emotional and love life, their body image, the expression of their identity, their attitude towards sharing family responsibilities and, of course, their academic success and career choices (SCF, 2018). Thus, reducing adherence to gender stereotypes in childhood and adolescence may allow individuals to develop more freely as L’nu, but it is also a strategy for more egalitarian relationships, particularly at school, and a strategy for academic success. This strategy is also consistent with the principles of the inclusive and caring school as promoted by the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (20172018).


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