A group of 12 or so Yukon men stood around a campfire on a dark and cold evening at Yukon College this week, talking about their feelings.
The event was part of the 12 Days to End Violence Against Women campaign. It’s organized by men who want to see fewer women suffer from violence and sexual assault.
In the warm glow of the bonfire, the men talked about how society tells them to express emotions through anger and violence, but not through compassion and empathy.
They talked about their personal responsibility to change their own thinking and language around violence against women, and to start conversations with their friends and family.
They talked about pushing for change in institutions and governments, territorially, nationally and internationally.
Here in the Yukon, that conversation is particularly salient.
Women in the territory are at least three times as likely to suffer a violent assault or sexual assault compared to those in Canada’s provinces.
When you look at Yukon’s aboriginal women, representing nearly a quarter of the overall population, those numbers skyrocket again. Our small territory counts 38 First Nation women who have been murdered, or gone missing.
For the men standing around the campfire that night, that’s unacceptable. They are willing to overcome their discomfort talking about the problem, if it makes even a small difference.
The 12 Days to End Violence Against Women has long been a fixture of late Novembers and early Decembers in the Yukon, although in the past it has largely been the women’s groups and their mostly female staff leading the charge.
The conversation about men standing up to oppose violence against women has come a long way in the territory in just a few years.
White Ribbon is an international group, born in Canada, specifically aimed at engaging men and boys to stop violence against women.
When Yukon’s White Ribbon Campaign was revived in 2011, it was essentially a two-man show, and even they weren’t so sure about the feminist label.
“I know growing up here, and with a lot of my friends that I grew up with, you can’t just drop the F-bomb in a conversation like that,” said Steve Roddick, one of the founders and currently the acting president, at the time.
Today the group has grown to dozens of members, volunteers and supporters, and men’s voices are increasingly being heard on a topic that in the past has been largely left to women.
“A high majority of men do not commit any of these crimes, but they still don’t do anything to do with these issues,” said Patrick Thompson, a member of White Ribbon. “That’s a gigantic group of people that can really help move this issue into a positive direction. There’s tons of room for men.”
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This year is a big year for White Ribbon. Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, when Marc Lepine shot 14 women dead and injured 14 more before killing himself.
He separated out the women and the men before opening fire on the engineering school classroom at Ecole Polytechnique, claiming he was “fighting feminism.”
The news at the time “devastated” Whitehorse city councillor John Streicker, who was an engineering grad student at the University of New Brunswick at the time.
“When it happened, it changed how we thought of ourselves as Canadians,” he said.
The White Ribbon campaign actually began as a response to the massacre, urging men to wear white ribbons as a symbol of non-violence and peace.
This year, Streicker wanted to do something to commemorate the significant anniversary.
So he approached the folks at White Ribbon with an idea: A quilt, made by men from men’s clothing, symbolizing their commitment to oppose violence against women.
It’s a little-known fact about the popular city councilllor and former federal Green Party candidate that he’s a long-time quilter, and indeed has a published book of quilt patterns available on Amazon.
Streicker made his first quilt right around the time of the Montreal Massacre, he said.
“My grandmother used to do lots of quilting, like traditional quilting bees. I always had one of her quilts, and I was the son of two math teachers, so I always dream in patterns and things like that. So I just started making quilts.”
It didn’t take long to get the White Ribbon men on board, he said.
“I say, ‘Hey, how about we quilt,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, we don’t quilt,’ and I say, ‘I’m sure we can do it.’”
It took four men about six evenings to make the quilt, said Streicker. They took to it right away.
“I really loved how engaged the men were around the quilting. It really helped to give us something physical to do to try and contribute to this challenging issue.”
The quilt is made from men’s dress clothing, sourced from the local thrift store.
The dark patterns represent the night sky, with 25 blocks for 25 years. They are offset by white ribbons pinned to the material. Each one represents a Yukon man who has pledged to fight violence against women.
The pledge is available online at whiteribbonyukon.com/pledge.
Thirty-eight mother of pearl buttons represent Yukon’s missing and murdered aboriginal women.
The quilt will be officially unveiled at today’s ceremony for the National Day of Remembrance & Action on Violence Against Women, scheduled for noon at the Elijah Smith building.
The hope is that after that the quilt will be used as a blanket, said Streicker, perhaps at one of Yukon’s shelters for women and children fleeing violence.
“It’s an indication to women that, as men, we want to take responsibility and address this problem,” said Streicker.
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Mark Rutledge has been a member of White Ribbon Yukon for a couple years now.
He’s Anishinaabe, from Ontario, and moved to the Yukon with his family four years ago.
Being First Nation, he has a different perspective on the problem from a lot of people, he said.
“I have seen a lot of violence happen in my communities, with friends and people I know, male and female violence. I want to be able to put a stop to that.
“I want to target the aboriginal communities in the Yukon as well. Because I know there’s a huge problem with violence.
With the histories of residential schools, children taken from their families and colonization, First Nation communities have forgotten the respect and reverence they once had towards women, he said.
“We need to turn the tables again, and say ‘Listen. This has got to stop, guys. Remember our teachings, our culture, our traditions.’”
Rutledge has seen progress over his lifetime, he said.
“I grew up in a household where you don’t cry. You skin your knee, you don’t cry.”
Times are changing, he said.
“You can cry and still be a man’s man. You can be a huge guy with a beard and still cry at girly movies. I love romance movies. That doesn’t mean I’m less of a man, right?”
Hearing about missing and murdered aboriginal women was common growing up, said Rutledge.
“As an aboriginal man, I’ve known about this for years. Since I was a teenager, missing and murdered women all the time.”
But today, the conversation is finally being pushed into the mainstream.
“In social media circles, that’s huge. It’s been going on for years now, and it’s just starting to gain traction in terms of making the public realize that there is a huge problem here. What are we doing about this?”
The Montreal Massacre affected him in a big way, too, he said.
“It still affects me. To this day, to actually think about how I felt. I was like, this could have been my sister, this could have been my mom. It really hit home.
“This is why I am part of this group. I don’t want to ever see that again. I don’t want my kids to see that on the news. I’ve got a little girl, and I’ve got two little boys, and I don’t want them to turn on the news and find out that this happened again.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at