J.R. LaRose stood at the front the room at the Old Fire Hall on May 30 with his broad back to a screen that displayed, in all capital letters, the reason for his visit to Whitehorse: “BREAK THE SILENCE ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.”
“How many people in this room,” he asked the crowd, “know a woman who has been abused?”
All the hands in the room go up. LaRose is unsurprised. The board behind him displays a series of numbers: One in three women in Canada have been sexually assaulted and fully half of all women in the country will experience sexual or physical violenceat some point in their lives after the age of 16.
“The stats don’t lie,” said LaRose.
LaRose is a big, burly man with a self-assured step and commanding way of speaking with his hands. Given that he played safety for the BC Lions until 2014, his physical size and confidence shouldn’t be surprising. His admission that he himself has seen first-hand sexual and physical violence against women — a topic men, especially men in the macho world of professional sports, aren’t typically heard talking about — might be.
LaRose and his mother are members of One Arrow First Nation, a Cree reserve in Saskatchewan. His mother, a residential school survivor, often turned to drugs and alcohol, he said, to deal with the trauma of that experience, which left her in unstable and sometimes dangerous situations. LaRose said that, as a child, he would often see his mother abused by her boyfriends.
“You can imagine the hurt and anger my mother was dealing with at such a young age,” he said.
This abuse also extended to his sister, who was 10 years older than him. When she was 18, he said the family got a phone call to say that her boyfriend had beaten her so badly she was in hospital.
“When we went to see her, I wasn’t able to recognize her,” he said. “My own sister … her face was so swollen.”
LaRose himself is also a survivor of sexual violence. As a young child, he was abused by a male caretaker his mother routinely left him with. The experience, he said, left him angry and violent and he lashed out at school. Instead of expelling him, his principal suggested he take up a sport, which is how he began playing football, a passion which would not only lead to a CFL career, but change the trajectory of his life.
“Football is one of the few sports where you can go around and hit people and not get in trouble,” he said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Really? I can run into a guy full-force and not wind up in (the principal’s office)? Sign me up.’”
LaRose would go on to win a Grey Cup with the BC Lions. Now happily retired, he still works with the Lions, giving talks about his experiences and speaking out against violence through the Be More Than A Bystander campaign. The program aims to “break the silence around violence against women and girls,” according to its website.
May was Sexualized Assault Prevention Month in Whitehorse. The Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre and Les Essentielles brought LaRose up as the finale to their Flip the Script campaign, which sought to raise awareness about victim blaming and issues of sexual consent.
Having a man — particularly one from a traditionally masculine field such as professional sports — speak out about sexual and physical violence against women is important, said executive director of Les Essentielles, Élaine Michaud.
“I think it helps to shed those stereotypes of masculinity that football holds,” she said. “You can be a sensitive person and still be a man, and starting with a football player is a great way to smash those stereotypes.”
LaRose agreed with this sentiment. More men need to speak up about violence against women, and stand up for women when they see violence enacted against them. This doesn’t always have to be confrontational, he said, and everyone should engage with a situation in a way that makes them feel safe.
“If you want to be a dick, I’ll expose you in front of everyone, see if you’re the big man on campus then — but that’s just me,” he said.
LaRose’s talk coincided with the Yukon hearing of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“This violence comes down to the objectification of women,” he said. “It’s that dog-like mentality that gets ingrained in men and boys at a young age and we have to stop it.… It’s disgusting.”
LaRose said as a football player he often heard some men talk about their “conquests” in the locker room, something which bothered him, because it’s part of the the objectification of women which leads to violence.
“This is a touchy subject — we’re talking about violence against women,” he said. “It’s not easy to be a whistleblower on a football team, it’s not easy to be that guy.”
Through dialogue, this is starting to change, he said.
“I’ve seen a huge change in the culture of the locker room,” he said. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
Contact Lori Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org