There was a line in Steve’s head for what domestic violence looked like and he was careful not to cross it. An avid hunter, Steve was aware that hitting his wife could get his gun licence revoked, or even land him in jail.
“There’s so much at stake when you hit somebody,” the 59-year-old Albertan said. (Steve is not his real name. The Globe and Mail has granted anonymity to him and other men in this story, in order for them to speak freely.)
He might not actually hit his wife, but he’d shove her. Threaten her. Hold her up against the wall and scream in her face. Things that he now sees clearly – and sheepishly – as abuse.
During a medical appointment in 2021, a nurse caught wind of an intense argument between Steve and his wife, who’d accompanied him to the local health clinic. The nurse gave him a business card for a social worker through Alberta Health Services, suggesting he give her a call.
When another fight at home a week or two later turned physical, with Steve shoving his wife against a wall, he got in touch. The social worker referred him that same day to Rowan House in High River, Alta., where a pilot shelter had recently been launched specifically for abusive men.
The Safe at Home program aims to flip the script on violence prevention, and the burden that has traditionally been on women to flee violent relationships.
Speaking with the Globe in March, five weeks into an eight-week stay, Steve said the program helped him to self-reflect and unlearn violent behaviour.
For example, he recalled one session where they went through a list of questions about himself and potentially abusive behaviours he’d engaged in during his eight-year relationship. Getting defensive and lashing out. Being quick to blame his partner. He was ticking every box, thinking over and over: geez, that’s me.
“It kicks you right in the ego … It’s pretty embarrassing once it clicks in and you realize what you did and you’re not the man you thought you were. It hurts,” he said. “But at the same time I welcome it, because I’m seeing this side of me I never did really pick up on before.”
According to a 2012 study by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, one dollar spent on violence prevention and intervention could save $20 in spending on services for victims and families. But programs that focus on abusers receive little funding in Canada, and the majority of Canada’s domestic violence work remains reactive — helping victims to flee relationships once things have already turned bad.
Much of the federal funding related to gender-based violence flows through Women and Gender Equality Canada, which told the Globe it “does not provide funding for projects focused on perpetrators.”
Researchers and those in the anti-violence sector say that provincial government support for intervention programs is also inadequate.
“All the work we’ve been doing is on changing women,” says Lana Wells, who co-wrote the 2012 study. “We need to start to think about what are the changes that we seek in men.”
Steve grew up in a macho culture, with a dad who yelled and screamed. There was no discussion of feelings in his house. He wishes that he’d been taught about healthy relationships in school. He wishes more men like him had access to programs like Safe at Home. “More guys need to get in here and get the help rather than go into jail. I mean, it’s a much better option. It will probably make the relationship better if that’s what they want to do, or else it gives them the courage to get out of it.”
One of the primary reasons prevention work is so poorly funded is that the pie can only be sliced so thinly within the gender-based violence sector. Because so many existing programs already rely on grants and fundraising, frontline workers fear that any new initiatives geared toward men would divert funds from those helping at-risk women and children. Another reason is that prevention programs don’t always produce metrics that governments can use to demonstrate the value of their investments. It is difficult to count how many men are prevented from using violence; how many women aren’t killed as a result.
But what is required, domestic violence researchers say, is a whole-of-society response, including a deep examination of the misogyny that underlies common assumptions about masculinity and a push to educate boys and girls about emotional health and positive relationships as part of the school curriculum, from kindergarten through high school. Later, mental-health supports for men and boys should be more widely available.
“We only manage crises,” says Patricia O’Campo, professor of public health at University of Toronto, who has developed apps to help women identify whether they’re at risk of intimate partner violence. “We try to put out the fires rather than focus on prevention.”
While interventions for perpetrators, or those who are worried about their potentially abusive behaviour, are few and far between in Canada, programs that are culturally appropriate, or that men can access voluntarily, rather than exclusively through court referral, are even rarer.
Two such programs that have proven to be effective are based in London, Ont. One, called Changing Ways, is directed at abusive men. The other related program, Caring Dads, aims to break cycles of intergenerational violence by showing fathers the effect of their behaviour on their children, and is being used around the world.
For some men, the programs have been life-changing.
Mike is 68, a guy who loves motorcycles and his old job selling auto parts. He’s also an abuser, although like Steve in Alberta he didn’t always realize it. His wife knew, though. She’d been married to a violent man before.
Mike and his wife are estranged; they were together for three years and apart for another three. He knows why: Because of his temper. He yelled at his wife, belittled her, called her names. During arguments, he says, he’d “go from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye.” There was no physical abuse in their relationship, Mike says, but he worried that it was coming. And he came to understand something else: “Words can hurt worse than that, because you can’t take them back. I’ve asked my wife for forgiveness, and she says: ‘I forgive you, but I don’t forget.’ ”
She also had something else to say to him: Go get help. So he did.
Mike showed up at the weekly meeting of Changing Ways thinking that he’d stay for the 16-week course. Two years later, he’s still there, though the meetings switched to Zoom during the pandemic. At first, he said, he went in “with his armour on.” He heard some men in the group make excuses for their abusive behaviour. But the group’s facilitator worked with them, using the kind of risk-diagnosis approach common in the health field, and slowly Mike came to understand what the trigger points were for his anger. Like Steve, he wondered why he’d never learned to deal with those emotions in the first place.
“We’re not taught to deal with emotions. We’re taught that you don’t cry. You know, act like a man. Be a man. When you’re five years old, you’re told to be a man, shake it off. But you’re five years old. What does that do to a kid?”
That’s exactly what Caring Dads, a related program run by the same facilitators as Changing Ways, aims to find out.
Whereas Mike came to Changing Ways of his own volition, it was the court system that brought Paul to Caring Dads. Paul, 42, a father of three, was in jail twice for physically assaulting his wife, and threatening a man she’d been friends with. When he was in jail, Paul remembered seeing his oldest son’s face streaked with tears as the police came to arrest him.
It was time to get help. A Children’s Aid worker recommended the Caring Dads program.
Paul had always thought that kids could only be harmed if they were abused themselves. “But I learned that what they saw was abusive to them mentally,” he says. In the Caring Dads program, he learned about children’s brain development and how it’s negatively affected by living in traumatic environments. He learned how to interact respectfully with their mother in front of them. In short, he says, “how to be a positive role model.”
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Researchers know that well-crafted, research-based prevention is crucial – but that doesn’t make it any easier to find support for these programs. “There’s generation after generation after generation of men who are doing this stuff but there’s no stomach to politically take this on and say, ‘There is a problem with male culture out there,’” says the founder of Changing Ways and co-founder of Caring Dads, Tim Kelly, a longtime researcher in the field.
“We realized if we’re actually trying to stop this sort of intergenerational sharing of violent behavior that we need to start working with our clients as fathers as well.”
Every year, more than 500 men go through Changing Ways and almost 100 through Caring Dads. Both programs have evidence to show they work. One study showed that abusers at high risk of reoffending were helped significantly by the Changing Ways program: They were half as likely to be rearrested on domestic violence charges in the following two years as those who hadn’t gone through the program.
The Caring Dads program, based on research conducted by Mr. Kelly and Katreena Scott, who is now the director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University, is available in seven provinces and countries around the world since it was first developed in 2001. It is being used in Australia, Japan and Hong Kong. A 2016 evaluation of the program in Britain found “evidence of sustained change” among fathers who completed the program, and a greater sense of well-being in their children and partners.
But while the Ontario government helps fund the Changing Ways program, Mr. Kelly says it doesn’t give anything to Caring Dads, a program that has become a worldwide success. (It’s funded by the United Way and the small fees, sometimes $10 per class or less depending on what people can afford, are paid by participants).
“We know what we need to do,” says Mr. Kelly. “But we’re just constantly tripped up by changing priorities within governments.”
In Ontario alone, more than 11,000 domestic violence offenders are mandated by the courts each year to attend a Partner Assault Response Program, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General. (The PAR program is a 12-week course available to people over 18 who have been ordered by a judge or parole board. The program used to be 16 weeks long, but was shortened in 2014 in an attempt to cull the waitlist.)
But once men have reached a point where they’re in contact with the police or courts, the system has failed in preventing abuse.
“We need those people to be able to access expertise earlier,” says Dr. Scott from Western University.. “Before a charge has been laid, before things have gotten out of hand, as early as possible.”
Dr. Scott points out that a person who is reaching out for help needs more than just a receptive ear. They need access to professionals with experience in dealing with violence. Right now a person on the brink of violence, or perpetrating long-term abuse in a relationship, often does not know where to turn. There’s no national helpline or web site, no counsellors on standby to make suggestions or referrals. And it can be hard to parse through service listings online, to determine which programs - some of which charge thousands of dollars - are effective.
Nara Fedozzi, the Safe at Home program director, said a common misconception is that “anger management” is all that’s needed to address intimate partner violence. But anger, she says, is about a loss of control – abuse is about maintaining it. For example, Steve would lash out during fights. But those fights were often triggered when he felt his authority was being undermined.
One province did experiment successfully with a hotline to help men deal with their stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Standing Together, the Nova Scotia government’s response to domestic violence, identified prevention specifically aimed at men and boys as one of its priorities. Men’s Helpline launched in 2020 with the message, “Life can be tough. It’s okay for everyone to reach out and ask for help.”
The messaging, which did not refer specifically to domestic violence, was crucial. So was the approach: non-judgmental, holistic and available 24/7. Men who called the helpline could be referred for further sessions offered by professional counsellors, up to a maximum of six. A report on the helpline noted that men called for a variety of reasons – to talk about abusive relationships, but also to talk about isolation, depression, and job loss.
Assisting men at the point where they realize they need help is crucial. If you ask Jeff St. John to describe the potential client for his new Calgary-based men’s mental health web site, he’ll tell you it’s a desperate guy bent over his computer, maybe in the dark of night, looking for answers. Maybe he’s struggling with a problem he can’t name, trapped by shame, and worried about being further blamed when he does reach out. “So we thought, if men are going to look for that help online, and try to self-diagnose, how can we show up in their search feeds, instead of them ending up in a Reddit forum that is less than helpful?”
The result is Men&, a new Calgary-based website that offers a help line, a counselling service, and a potential for community for men who are struggling, not just with abusive behaviour but with loneliness, anxiety and worry.
For the past six years, Dr. St. John, a counsellor and researcher, has worked with the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter, which runs a men’s counselling service, to develop the digital platform for men. The provincial government wasn’t interested in funding it, but two years ago the Calgary Foundation, a municipal charity, stepped up. “There’s a huge demand for this, but there haven’t been the resources,” says Dr. St. John.
Little federal funding goes to prevention programs for abusers, even as spending has recently ramped up to support women fleeing abuse.
The Globe reached out to six federal departments asking about funding specifically for prevention initiatives aimed at boys and men, and found few. One of the only programs mentioned by name: The WiseGuyz project in Alberta, which promotes healthy relationships for boys 13 to 15, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The slow work of building allies is happening in pockets around the country: The White Ribbon campaign has been giving workshops and raising awareness with men and boys since 1991, spurred by the Montreal Massacre. The Moosehide Campaign is an Indigenous-led cross-country effort asking men and boys to stand up against violence toward women and girls. And NextGenMen is focused on steering boys away from harmful attitudes, in real life and online.
The thing that frustrates researchers is that programs educating children about healthy relationships do exist, and are affordable, but are not widespread. “Prevention is actually very cheap compared to intervention,” says David Wolfe, adjunct psychology professor at Western University. “This isn’t something you’re asking for billions of dollars to do.”
Dr. Wolfe is one of the co-creators of The Fourth R, a program aimed at fostering healthy relationships that’s taught to kids in grades 7 to 9. It’s been used in 5,000 schools across Canada and the U.S., using interaction and role-playing to get kids involved in determining what makes a good relationship – instead of having a teacher drone on at them about it.
As an example, he offers Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. A teacher might ask students to examine, without judgment or shaming, why this incident might have happened, and to ask how they would have responded if the victim and perpetrator had been their friends.
One evaluation in Ontario showed that dating violence was reduced by 62 per cent at the end of Grade 11 among students who were taught healthy, non-abusive relationship skills in Grade 9, compared with those who hadn’t been through the program. But Dr. Wolfe says that programs concentrating on healthy relationships are too rare, and they should be taught in early adolescence, when kids’ notions about their identities are being formed. “Where we haven’t focused as much, but we know we need to, is on education for everybody. It’s a universal health issue.”
While there can be reluctance to devote already limited resources to men who’ve committed violence, empathy often comes from an unexpected sector: survivors themselves.
“What really stops people from addressing this is that we’re given a binary choice, which is a false dichotomy: you’re either a good man or you’re a monster,” says Kimlee Wong, a survivor and member of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. “Who wants to be labeled an abuser, who wants to admit that they’ve done these things to their partners? Even if they want to change.” There are men, she notes, “who really want to do the right thing, but don’t have the tools or who are responding from their own trauma response. And with help, guidance, they can turn it around.”
Any programs for men, she added as a caveat, should be informed by the experiences of survivors, and given the scarcity of resources, such programs must be created and funded in addition to resources for survivors—not in lieu of.
Debije Jules, a survivor in the Toronto area, echoes the sentiments of Mike and Steve and Paul when she questions why we fail to teach boys how to deal with their emotions: “Why do we raise them in such a way that they have to be tough, and they have to be aggressive, and all of those harsh types of traits that society instills in men? … I’m just saying that we need to take responsibility for how we raise all men and boys.”
Canada does not have a national domestic violence helpline. Men residing in Nova Scotia have access to the men’s helpline by dialling 2-1-1 or calling toll-free 1-855-466-4994; Alberta’s provincial abuse helpline is 1-855 443 5722; Quebec’s SOS violence conjugale is at 1-800-363-9010.
Women seeking help can call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511. For information on family violence resources by region, see Canada.ca.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify which group funded a 2012 study by the University of Calgary and which group developed Signal for Help.
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