The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Cross-Cultural Conflict in Social Service Provision With Indigenous Youth: A Case Study of Power Dynamics in a Circus Program for Inuit Youth

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 3:30 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, River Terrace, Upper Parking Level, Elevator Level P2 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Kaitlin J. Schwan, MA, Research Associate for Social Assistance in the New Economy, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Ernie Lightman, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Purpose:  Activists, researchers, and indigenous elders have increasingly linked the widespread social, psychological, and physical problems experienced by indigenous peoples in Canada to the colonial violence enacted by the Canadian government.  Within these discussions, youth have been identified as a particularly vulnerable population, with studies indicating high rates of substance use, suicide, violence, high school drop-out, and poverty among this population .  Innovative social service programs for indigenous youth in Canada have been identified by many indigenous communities as essential to healing, but such programs remain scant and limited research has been done on needs-based program development for this population.  Further, previous research in this area has commonly employed Western epistemologies and methodologies in program assessment, assuming the cross-cultural applicability of concepts and models.  Diverging from this tradition, this study utilizes a case study of a Cirque du Soliel circus program developed for Inuit youth in Canada’s Arctic which attempts to creatively engage youth-identified social goals and needs.  Focusing on the program’s innovative structure and challenges to implementation, we analyze how cross-cultural social service programming can both heal and reify settler/indigenous power dynamics. 

Method:  A longitudinal, qualitative method was employed in order to access participants’ nuanced accounts.  In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted over a period of 2 ½ years with four circus trainers, the Director of Cirque du Monde, and the Director of the Nunavik Recreation Department.  Each was interviewed at least twice.  Employing a modified grounded-theory approach, thematic analysis was conducted using NVivo and themes were analyzed in relation to historical data on settler-indigenous relations in that region.  Research findings were presented to interviewees, who provided important feedback and revisions.

Results:  Data analysis indicated that circus trainers identified the main challenges to the program to be:  non-commitment from youth, frequent quitting among participants, infrequent attendance, and lack of adult volunteerism.  Analysis suggested that trainers’ narratives about these behaviours commonly focused on individual pathology, family problems, or substance abuse, and consequently that disciplining and modeling “healthy” community was viewed as a solution by trainers.  However, when Inuit youths’ behaviours were put in conversation with both historic and contemporary colonial practices (e.g. residential schooling, outlawing of spiritual and artistic practices, etc.), our research suggested that these behaviours are better understood as micro-interactional efforts towards decolonization rather than deviant, unhealthy, or maladaptive.  Our analysis indicated that the contrast between Western and Inuit conceptions of time, accountability, health, and community was not critically addressed in program design, and thus may not have met youths’ needs. 


Conclusions:  This study suggests that we need to develop and analyze social service programs for indigenous youth with attention to local and contextualized experiences of colonialism.  Such a re-orientation requires that we re-frame participant behaviour in ways that are not only culturally-sensitive, but do justice to both colonial histories and power asymmetries within the program.  This research indicates that we need to foster and respect resistance in response to social service programs with indigenous youth, which requires a re-thinking of how we conceptualize program success.