Don’t Call it Men’s Rights

Justin Trottier's tough battle to reinvent a creepy movement

Photography of Justin Trottier
Justin Trottier

Will 2017 be the year that “men’s rights” begins its march to respectability? It’s a long shot. But if it happens, the one to thank will likely be Justin Trottier, a young, skinny, impeccably polite Torontonian. In 2016, Trottier hosted the first national conference of the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE), of which he is co-founder and CEO. The group’s name is notable for a word it does not contain—“men”—though that hasn’t stopped critics from attacking the outfit as one that promotes “antifeminist ideas and hatred of women.”

According to its website, CAFE’s goal is to achieve “equality for all men, women, girls and boys.” While that sounds gender-neutral, the group also pledges to focus on “those areas of gender which are understudied in contemporary culture”—i.e., “the health and well-being of boys and men.” Recently, CAFE has hosted events such as a talk on men’s sexual health, and screenings of the controversial men’s rights documentary The Red Pill—which got pulled from one Ottawa theatre after the owner heard from CAFE’s critics. For all their controversy, such events reflect only a small part of what the group does. Most of its programs are aimed at helping men who struggle with issues such as family breakdown, anger management, and mental health.

“When I am tempted to enter pointless online fights, I think about all the stories of how CAFE has helped people,” Trottier told the crowd of 100 mostly middle-aged attendees at the group’s national conference, held on the second floor of Ottawa’s city hall. “We put aside the question of who has it worst in our society, men or women. That kind of polarizing debate doesn’t help in assisting individual people and families.”

In addition to running CAFE, Trottier also serves as the director of the organization’s Centre for Men and Families, a drop-in centre on College Street in downtown Toronto that offers services such as suicide prevention. In their outreach activities and promotional literature, the Centre’s staff is careful to note that roughly a third of their advisory board and half of their volunteers and lawyers are female. “The health and well-being of boys and men affects everyone,” Trottier says. “And that includes women. Families will be stronger and healthier if we take care of everyone in society.”

While traditional men’s rights activists launch themselves headlong into the culture war, Trottier declares himself a neutral non-combatant. On the subject of intimate partner violence, for example, he says he doesn’t want to get into arguments about who is being unfairly treated by the police or courts. Rather, he wants all victims to be included in the discussion—including men and women who suffer in same-sex relationships. In June, the centre scored a major coup when it was accredited by Legal Aid Ontario to provide legal aid certificates to men who experience domestic violence—the first organization focused on male clients to be granted this status.

CAFE has also gained some traction with its campaign for the federal government to include men and boys in its inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Although Indigenous men are three times more likely to be homicide victims than Indigenous women, this so-called “necktie campaign” has “gotten blowback,” Trottier says—because critics see it as an issue that can help legitimize the MRA movement more generally. But the necktie campaign’s founders are mothers in the Indigenous community, he points out, including Lydia Daniels, who developed the idea for the campaign after her twenty-six-year-old son, Colten Pratt, disappeared in 2014.

Despite these important initiatives, CAFE faces an uphill battle to improve its image, given that much of the country already has made up its mind about the group. For years, Ryerson University’s Men’s Issues Awareness society—an affiliate of CAFE—has been in a public fight with the school’s student union over the latter’s decision to deny it accreditation. In 2014, CAFE’s permit to march in the Toronto Pride Parade was abruptly cancelled when the parade’s organizers concluded that the organization “may contravene the spirit of the mission, vision, and values of Pride Toronto.” And in 2012, when CAFE co-hosted Warren Farrell—the father of the men’s rights movement—at the University of Toronto, the police were called in to ensure that protests didn’t turn violent. Every one of these incidents has created a thick trail of debate and discussion on the internet—Twitter, especially—including the inevitable threats and abuse from MRA trolls.

Trottier and his group are often lumped in with this broader MRA movement. This is not least because some of the movement’s most strident online supporters are directly involved with CAFE—finding their way to the Ottawa conference and other events. Rather than turn them away, Trottier’s strategy is to welcome them inside—so that he can lecture them on tactics and terminology. “People like ‘gender advocacy,’ he says. “But it’s best to focus on practical matters. As soon as some people hear the term ‘MRA,’ they decide you’re their enemy. It’s a conversation stopper. I want to start a conversation.”

More problematically, CAFE featured prominent MRAs at its conference. The keynote speaker, for instance, was Karen Straughan, a minor internet celebrity who’s won fame for her web videos attacking feminist mantras. In her speech, Straughan spoke of a man who, she claimed, had been arrested eight times over false allegations spread by his ex-wife. By Straughan’s account, the location-tracking feature of his ankle bracelet was the only thing that saved him from being arrested yet again, after his ex showed up at a hospital emergency room and falsely accused him of beating her in an alley minutes before.

Straughan also inveighed against something she called the “feminist self-licking ice cream cone”: whenever courts and legislatures take steps to ameliorate female disadvantage, they create a legal or policy precedent that recognizes the existence of female disadvantage, thereby legitimizing further interventions to address that disadvantage. According to Straughan, the idea of a virtuous feminist sisterhood battling for equality has become a “sacred object” within our secularized society. The reality, she argues, is that we live in a society that is more difficult for men than women in many key ways.

Janice Fiamengo, an English professor at the University of Ottawa and self-described “anti-feminist,” was another conference speaker. Her talk was full of broad denunciations of radical feminists and their “gynocentric” worldview. She complained that feminists gave “no thanks for the civilization men built.” (Fiamengo is one of 31 individuals who are identified as CAFE’s “advisory fellows.” The list also includes Barbara Kay, who is the mother of a co-author of this article.)

Fiamengo used phrases like “the altar of ideological rectitude,” and declared that “universities are already essentially female-only institutions. Men just happen to attend them.” Nothing that Fiamengo said was hateful per se—but it wasn’t clear how this kind of rhetoric focuses attention on the men’s issues Trottier says he’s concerned with tackling. These speeches, much like the MRA diatribes one sees on social media, are mostly about venting anti-feminist views. As Barb MacQuarrie, a professor at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and the community director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women & Children (CREVAWC), observes: CAFE may say it’s not about men’s rights activism, but if that’s who they’re drawing in, “there’s a different on-the-ground reality.”

The conference’s next speaker was David Shackleton, a self-described “thinker and writer on psychosociology and personal growth,” who provided a lengthy discourse on the history of identity politics. Shackleton has all sorts of ambitious sociological theories that carry the whiff of autodidactic eccentricity. Based on casual interviews conducted by The Walrus, this seems to be a common character type within the MRA movement. During the Q&A following Shackleton’s speech, for instance, a man claimed to have proven—in a self-authored monograph he was offering to provide to any interested parties—that men were responsible for every advance in human culture over the last 2,700 years. Again, not hateful per se, but odd (to say nothing of inaccurate).

Aside from a Walrus reporter, there was no other national media in the room. And given the mixed quality—and message—of the speakers, that was probably a good thing for Trottier.

Based on interviews we have conducted, it’s clear that many MRAs come to the movement through an experience they regard as representative of anti-male bias in our society—a bad family-law experience, most commonly (which may help explain why they often seem so angry).

But not Trottier, who is more of a professional iconoclast. When Trottier first emerged on the scene in 2011, in his late twenties, he was a self-described “free thinker” who looked like he’d borrowed an older relative’s loose-fitting suit. He was then running something called the “Center for Inquiry,” a salon in downtown Toronto devoted to freedom of thought and what Trottier calls “scientific, naturalistic” ethics. (Readers might remember him as spokesman for something called the atheist bus campaign.)

“We were opposed to the concept of blasphemy and censorship,” Trottier recalls. “We used to run a program called Living Without Religion. These were ex-Catholics, ex-Muslims, ex-Mormons—people who came out of a conservative dogmatic background. A lot of people just called us ‘the atheist group,’ even though we tried to keep that word out of our name.”

He was then—as now—a giant nerd. When he speaks, he never tries to be funny or sarcastic, or play the victim card. A trained engineer and passionate astronomy nerd (he hosts a regular podcast called The Star Spot), Trottier speaks with a flat but relatively confident affect. What you feel about him may depend on your willingness to take him at his word: that he came to men’s rights (even if he doesn’t call it that) simply because he believes it is irrational to avoid addressing the—very real—needs of half our national population.

There is abundant data showing that men disproportionately suffer from certain issues in our society. According to Statistics Canada, men suffer from higher rates of substance abuse or dependence than women. They account for the majority of Canada’s homeless shelter population. The male suicide rate is roughly three times the female rate. In both the white- and blue-collar sectors, men’s workplace injury rate significantly exceeds women’s. And in education, there are significant discrepancies between female and male enrollment and graduation rates, with women surpassing men in all but doctoral level education.

Trottier seems to recognize that CAFE’s focus on these issues risks getting lost in the hate and weirdness that suffuses the men’s rights movement. In his speech at the conference, he urged members to be practical and professional; to run community services in people’s neighborhoods; to use crowd-funding sites such as GoFundMe to bring in fresh supporters. He also urged attendees to avoid getting angry or otherwise acting in ways that fulfill negative stereotypes: “Imagine if we attended the events of people we disagreed with and did the same tactics? Pulling fire alarms, blocking exits, bullying, censorship, and intimidation. Imagine how the media would treat us? If they want to hold us to a higher standard, fine. Let’s show them it’s possible to discuss even the most sensitive issues in a civilized way.” Trottier also suggested that group members have printed transcripts available for journalists—to prevent reporters from misconstruing oral remarks.

While important, these efforts to legitimize the organization are likely not sufficient. CAFE should also avoid trafficking in misleading claims, says Peter Jaffe, a professor at UWO, and the academic director of CREVAWC. Any visitor to CAFE’s website, for instance, would have difficulty ignoring the banner notice that reads: “Half of domestic violence victims are men”—which is accompanied by a frightening image of an overbearing woman. While it’s true that some men suffer in relationships, Jaffe notes, when you look into these statistics, you quickly see that it’s women who disproportionately live in fear, who miss time from work, who suffer medically serious physical or sexual abuse in their relationships. CAFE loses credibility when it refuses to recognize that intimate-partner violence affects women more than it affects men.

Trottier must also address the haters in CAFE’s midst. Warren Farrell was once asked whether he worried about the toxic culture surrounding the men’s rights movement. He said that he wasn’t: “Every movement has radicals. But the important thing is that the radicals are not the leaders.”

We doubt this is true. As rational-seeming and pleasant as Trottier may be, he risks forever being overshadowed by the noisier and more extreme MRA advocates who ally themselves with his cause—some of whom are even given speaking roles at his events. Until the haters get shown the door, the men’s rights movement will never truly come of age.

Lauren Heuser
Lauren Heuser is the comments editor at the National Post and a former editorial fellow at The Walrus.