Jackson Katz wants to redefine what it means to be a man.
Strong men, he says, don’t abuse women. Nor do they stand by when others are doing the abusing.
Katz is an American author, educator and public speaker. He travels North America repeating his message: men need to be involved in the solution to end violence and abuse against women.
Katz got the crowd warmed up in Whitehorse this week during the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s conference on women’s issues. This year’s event focussed on engaging men and boys.
There were over a hundred people in the room - teachers, students, youth workers, women’s rights advocates and others. Men were in the minority.
Just before lunchtime, Katz asked what you call a man who speaks up to discourage another man from taking home a drunk woman. Discernible whispers filled the air: “cock-blocker.”
He asked how many people had never heard the term, and less than 10 hands were raised. “It’s not a compliment,” he said.
Katz said the solution is to have strong male role models at all levels of society who vocally encourage “cock-blocking” and “snitching” when this behaviour helps create a safer society for women.
Violence and abuse, whether it’s physical, emotional or sexual, is endemic. Statistics show Yukon rates three times higher than the provinces, but lower than the two territories.
There were microphones set up through out the room to encourage conversation and testimonial. Annie Blake, a First Nation woman from Old Crow, said her tight-knit, isolated community makes it near-impossible to go against the status quo because people will fight against what you’re doing.
“You risk losing your friends if you speak out. You risk being attacked.”
Violence and abuse is higher among the aboriginal population, and it is tied up with poverty and alcohol abuse. Katz said layers of history, culture and race need to be acknowledged - there is no “one-size fits all” formula to address the role of men and women in communities.
“People are uncomfortable to talk about colonialism, and racism, so we make generalizations instead of zeroing in on behaviour,” he said, “but violence prevention is interwoven with social change.”
Katherine Mackwood is the president of the Yukon Teacher’s Association. She helped organize the symposium, and she has a personal connection to the cause. She too took to the floor and spoke about her experience in an abusive relationship.
Mackwood wants to equip teachers with the ability to discuss abuse and sexism. She said it shouldn’t just be one unit in school, it should become a part of the underlying culture of the education system.
Mackwood also said recognizing people who have been abused, and getting them to open up and talk about it, will help everybody.
Sruthee Govindaraj is a student at Vanier Secondary School. She says anti-bullying and anti-violence rhetoric is pounded into students, and they are numb to the message. She said the conference was stimulating because it offered a different perspective, and more options for change.
Katz said change has to be political; it has to come from the top. There has to be a trusted figure directing actions - if kids learn to speak a certain way at home or school, but don’t see what they learned exemplified in the workforce, they won’t stick to it.
The minister of education, Elaine Taylor, was present to speak at the beginning of the symposium, but other than her opening words the conversation lacked political voices, male or otherwise.
Katz said he didn’t say it would be easy. But studies show that most men are silently uncomfortable with sexist comments or behaviour.
“It’s not that men don’t want to speak up,” he says, “it’s just that they don’t think they have permission.”