Getting the real story

Sociologist Justin Tetrault explores social inequality by talking to prisoners and extremists

Anna Schmidt - 27 February 2023

Photo of Justin Tetrault
Photo by John Ulan

Justin Tetrault’s early education left him frustrated. The school system offered “obvious and uncomplicated” answers to major social challenges and his history books condoned colonialism. It wasn’t until third-year university that Tetrault found a framework to explore the root causes of social issues. He became a sociologist and dedicated his career to understanding inequality in Canada by talking to those affected by it and those who seek to reproduce it.

How do you describe your work in one or two sentences?

I have two different projects where I interview people who are typically hard to reach for academics — prisoners and right-wing nationalists or extremists. For the first project, my goal is to understand and help address the urgent needs and interests of incarcerated men and women. For the second, I want to understand how right-wing nationalists and extremists arrive at their belief systems.

What did you want to be when you were in Grade 3? 

As a kid I was a quiet nerd who couldn’t do many physical activities because of my asthma. So I spent a lot of time drawing, especially during class. By Grade 3, I knew I wanted to make cartoons when I grew up. If that didn’t work, my second career option was (obviously) video game designer.

When did you know you wanted to be a sociologist?

I didn’t become passionate about sociology until my third year at the University of Winnipeg, where professors trained us to think critically. That experience was in stark contrast to my public-school education, where teachers taught us there were obvious and uncomplicated answers to all social issues: Canadian society is mostly perfect, and people just need to stop being poor and committing crimes. My grade-school history curriculum also painted a rosy picture of Canadian colonialism. I was frustrated, which drove my intellectual curiosity for understanding social issues and how we might alleviate them. I decided to pursue sociology thanks to the encouragement of my undergrad professors.

What’s one big problem you want to address or goal you want to achieve?

Our prison research team is beginning a seven-year study where I will be researching Indigenous issues related to community reintegration, healing lodges and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). I hope this work will help address some of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. For my work on the Canadian far-right, I hope my findings on how people arrive at right-wing nationalist ideologies and conspiracy theories can be used to develop better scientific and media literacy programs for kids and adults.

What advice would you give to young people?

I have learned the most when I’ve left my comfort zone — which I think can apply to both our personal and professional lives. I was a shy, introverted person and it took a lot for me to approach my professors about pursuing graduate studies. Expressing vulnerability can lead to confusion, difficulties and failures but overcoming those challenges can be among our most enlightening and rewarding experiences.

What’s your favourite thing so far about Augustana?

The size of Augustana creates a great sense of community. I love teaching smaller classes. It allows for more and better discussions that you don’t get teaching in lecture halls. I’ve learned a lot from listening to Augustana students! The smaller campus also led me to befriend people in diverse fields, from mathematicians to environmental scientists to religious scholars and historians. I’ve only been at Augustana for just over a year and have made lifelong friends.

How do you see the Augustana community playing a role in your work?

I would like my research on incarcerated Indigenous Peoples and community reintegration to involve a mutually beneficial collaboration with the Augustana campus and nearby Indigenous communities and nations. I am currently working alongside Indigenous and non-Indigenous faculty, staff and community members to build those relationships. I am also working with Willow White in Fine Arts and Humanities to develop Augustana’s Indigenous studies program, which I hope will attract more community members to the campus. I believe strongly in Augustana’s potential as a place for uplifting Indigenous students, knowledges and cultures, and I’m excited to involve both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in my research.

What’s the worst fashion or hair decision you've made?

I had an emo music phase and dyed my hair black. I’m thankful social media didn’t really exist at the time.

What’s the last show you binge-watched and loved?

I’m more into movies, but I enjoyed the miniseries Midnight Mass, which is a great blend of horror, social commentary and dark comedy.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

I could never choose a single book, but I really got into the Dune series this past year. I can’t decide if I like the first or fourth book more. I wish I could teach a course on the series as it’s jam-packed with big questions about political theory, ethics and philosophy.

Where did you grow up and what’s one thing you love about your hometown?

I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1. The land has a rich history, especially in relation to Indigenous resistance movements such as the Red River Rebellion. I also love that my hometown is the Slurpee Capital of the World. We’ve drunk the most slurpees every year for 22 years in a row. 

What’s one thing you’re grateful for?

I never thought I was smart growing up, so I’m still shocked to be working at a university. I’m grateful to be doing work that I love alongside great people. I couldn’t have made it here without the encouragement of my friends, mentors and family.

More about Justin Tetrault

My work covers a range of topics, including prisons, decolonization and political movements and extremism. I currently have two research projects. The first is the University of Alberta Prison Project, where our research team interviews incarcerated people and staff about their experiences living and working inside prisons. The second project focuses on Canada’s right-wing nationalist movement. It shows how right-wing ideology and prejudice are intimately connected to mainstream Canadian culture, which challenges pop media narratives that present right-wing groups as “un-Canadian.” I am also Red River Métis and work with the Indigenous Engagement Advisory Committee to further develop Augustana’s Indigenous studies program.