Q&A: Canadian Centre for Men and Families' Justin Trottier Advocates for Fathers' Rights

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Divorce hits everyone hard: men, women, and children alike. And while mothers with custody have arguably more access to social and government supports post-divorce than fathers, Justin Trottier thinks divorced dads have fallen through the cracks in the system. To counteract this perceived systemic failure, social justice activist Trottier co-founded the Canadian Centre for Men and Families (CCMF), self-described as "Toronto’s first hub for the health and well-being of boys, men, fathers and families,” but is now nationwide.

The CCMF arose out of Trottier's experience working with the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), an educational charity with a mandate to work towards gender equality, which he co-founded. Trottier, who is CAFE's CEO, discovered that introducing topics related to men and boys was "unwelcome" during community discussions about gender equality. Hence the founding of the CCMF in 2014, to deal with those issues. Trottier is their executive director.

Among the programs on offer at the CCMF are counseling, legal clinics, peer support groups, employment and career advice, and courses on fathering after separation or divorce. The organization, which is funded through a combination of private donations, sponsorships, and government grants, has physical offices in Calgary and, in Ontario, Ottawa, Toronto, and St. Thomas; and 10 branches in total across Canada that organize public events and engage in local community outreach.

Samaritanmag spoke with Trottier a — father of a 9-month old daughter — about the state of fathers' rights in Canada, how his team is helping men become better fathers, parental alienation, and why his efforts on behalf of men and boys are not anti-women.

Describe the services and supports the Canadian Centre for Men and Families offer.

It's a very busy space. We offer a broad array of services, and we're looking at filling gaps in the community. We have a support group — it's curriculum based  — called Fathering After Separation or Divorce, which is for dads in all kinds of parenting arrangements. So co-parenting, single dads, and we have plenty of dads in nuclear families, too, who just want to take a parenting course, and they get a lot out of it. So it's a really interesting, diverse group of fathers.

But the reason that we set up was that we looked around and there were very few programs for fathers in any type of situation, but in particular as you're going through a separation or divorce. And they are very common; there's almost nothing to assist dads. And so we wanted to make a difference. And we set up that program a few years ago, and it's one of our more popular ones. We run a legal clinic; part family law, part criminal law, meets on a weekly basis, provides access to justice to men who otherwise couldn't afford lawyers or would be self-representing without any kind of expert assistance. And then we have counseling as well. And we have, unfortunately, quite a waiting list.

Because what we've noticed is that men will engage in help-seeking behaviors. But what most men want is they want to be welcomed into an environment that is positive and affirming to men. And, unfortunately, not all social service agencies are that way when it comes to men seeking help. And so because of our male-positive brand we have a lot of men for the first time in their lives looking for counseling, looking for support groups. And so, as I say, unfortunately we have a waiting list. People are reaching out to us, which is a very good thing, but our resources are very limited which is unfortunate.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have taken off in the last few years. Have those movements impacted the landscape in terms of fathers' rights?

It's definitely brought up a lot of issues around victimization, and the piece that we're really interested in is to make sure that all victims are being supported. So we hear a lot about always believe the victims, and I think, all things being equal, we should... definitely [believe victims], if we're talking about potentially criminal allegations when there should be a courtroom to determine the facts of the matter. But victims should be supported as much as we possibly can.

What we'd like to see, though, is the same kind of approach to male victims, to same-sex victims. When you look at sexual abuse, when you look at domestic violence, the scholarly research tells you that. Take domestic violence, for example. Domestic violence isn't only a phenomenon where you have men abusing women. It also happens the other way around; women can be domestically abusive to men. There's also domestic violence in same-sex relationships.

But the problem with any narrative that limits our understanding of the phenomenon to one particular kind of scenario. In the case of domestic violence, that scenario is a big, strong, powerful male who is terrorizing a helpless, innocent female victim, and that is the only way in which domestic violence operates. Now there's plenty of that, and when that happens it's unacceptable, it's criminal, and those victims should be supported. It's not the only way it happens. Sometimes we create stereotypes of social ills and when we do that, we're blind to victims who don't fit that stereotype.

And so another thing we do is we don't only complain about problems, we also tried to be responsible for solutions. We operate Toronto's only support group for male-identified survivors of domestic violence. We also provide counseling to men who have suffered domestic abuse or sexual abuse or other forms of trauma here at our office.

But, again, the idea here is not to make this into a battle between female victims and male victims. It's to make sure that we work collaboratively. So anybody who's a victim, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, has the services and support that they need.

From your experience what obstacles do fathers face in the legal system when it comes to negotiating custody of their children?

You should have been there last night. We had a debate on family court and equal parenting. There's a federal bill called Bill C78 that is going to be reforming family court and, in particular, the Divorce Act. And we've been lobbying. When I say ‘we,’ I mean my organization and many others that care about the best interests of children, and think that the best interests of children are served when they have maximum contact with both parents after separation or divorce.

So we've been pushing for something called ‘equally shared parenting,’ and CAFE built a coalition of groups that presented before the Justice Committee of the House of Commons over the last few months to argue for equal parenting. Unfortunately, very few amendments and certainly none as big as putting in equal parenting were put in Bill C78 before we set off to the Senate. So it's heading to the Senate now and the chances of putting equal parenting in the bill are not great, but we're going to continue to push for that and to build our network of supporting agencies that will work with us either now or in the future when we have another chance at this.

But the reason we think that that's so important is that the current family law system is badly broken. Anybody who's gone through it just about will tell you that it's very incentivizing to high conflict situations. There are lots of things that can be done to try to turn the temperature down in divorce proceedings, and instead there were a lot of ways in which we're turning the temperature up.

But right now, unfortunately, they do tend to, instead of looking out for the best interests of the children in terms of maximum contact between both parents, there is much more a focus on the financial aspect of parenting. As important as that is, children also need more than just financial resources; [they need] safety and love and affection, and time and experiences with both their parents. And that aspect of it doesn't seem to be prioritized as much as it should be.

From your experience, do Canadian courts favour mothers over fathers when it comes child custody in Canada?

Well, if you look at the rates at which mothers and fathers are seeking custody versus the rates at which they're actually being awarded custody, there's clearly a slant towards favoring mothers over fathers. Now, that can be interpreted in different ways, but when you look at the way decisions are being rendered and the way judges are explaining their decision, it looks like a lot of judges still see families the way they were in the '50s.

And I mentioned this earlier in our conversation that family life has changed drastically. Fathers play a very different role than they did in the '50s. I said single father families are the fastest-growing family form. Obviously, in the work that I do, I'm surrounded by father-led families, so I see that on a day-to-day basis. And I see amazing dads who have in some cases been through abusive situations, living in poverty. They've really not had an easy job of it at all, and yet they've really stepped up and put their children's interests front and center. And I think that they put a lot of effort into making sure that whatever they've been through, that their children don't have to suffer for it.

And yet at the same time, it's not only in court. We also see it sort of pervading popular culture. There's a real disrespect for the role of fathers. The deadbeat dad, you know, that's still kind of a paradigm out there that following separation or divorce your average father is disengaged. And in a lot of cases the disengagement is not voluntary; it's being created by an unfair system. And the dads that I work with, they do everything they can, despite the unfairness of the system, to stay as involved as they can, and, again, to protect their kids at all costs from whatever unfairness they've had to suffer through.

It is probably fair to say that most fathers want to support their children both emotionally and financially, but court-mandated child support can be difficult to keep up. Is it a fair system?

Well, you know, it's hard for me to comment. I have not had to go through that kind of personal situation, fortunately. So what I would comment on would be the anecdotes from my clients here. And I'm very sensitive that the men I talked to are the men who have gone through really bad family court experiences. I don't know that their experiences speak for the average. Their experiences, they speak to problems in the system, but I would want to hesitate before I sort of generalized to what happens at every family court situation.

But what I do hear, there are a couple of patterns. So, one is that if the father — presumably if it was the mother who is paying custody and alimony, this would apply as well — but it's usually the dad that, if his work situation changes, if he's no longer making the kind of money he was making, that the courts either ignore that change of circumstance or they take a long time before that change affects the amount that he's computed to owe.

There's also instances where the family court will basically tell a dad that he must stay with a higher-paying job, even in cases where it's not good for him. Maybe it's a dangerous job, maybe it's making him unwell mentally, but because that high-paying job is bringing more money into the family system, it's been available to his ex-partner and the children, that he should maintain that employment. And it's not always feasible for him to do that. And then he is sort of punished if he's unwilling to maintain that particular profession.

The other side of it is we have in every province and territory an agency that enforces child support payments; in Ontario it's the Family Responsibility Office. In no province or territory is there any agency that similarly enforces visitation and access rights.

So if you're — and again, usually it works this way —  if you're a dad who is responsible for paying a certain amount of child support every month, and, in exchange for that, you're supposed to be seeing your child on a regular basis and your partner or your ex partner just makes it impossible for you to have those visits, it takes a long time if ever for that to be rectified.

There again, there's no agency that is doing what they do with respect to child support payments. The responsibility office has a whole website [dedicated to] deadbeat parents. I think I haven't seen a single mother on that website. But what they do is they put up the photo of so-called deadbeat dads. This is a government website, and they give the person's name and other what should be, I think, private information. There is no similar website for parents who refuse to allow their child to see their other parent.

And, again, the money's important, but so is time and experience with both parents. So why aren't we equally concerned about parents who are maliciously preventing their child from seeing the other parent? It should be just as much of a scandal as is the lack of payments. In fact, I would say more of a scandal because in many cases payments are not being made because they just don't have the money to pay it. You look at the research on this and that's the majority of the so-called deadbeat dads. They're not deadbeats, they're just broke dads. But there's no excuse for preventing a child from seeing the other parent. And, yet again, government/public attitudes are just not where they should be on that issue.

Well, that segues into my next question, about parental alienation, which is an increasingly common buzz phrase in parenting circles. How often do you hear about parental alienation among your clients?

It is probably the number one issue in fact that we hear. We've been talking about the problems of the family court system in terms of visitation issues, in terms of the biases in the system that result in fathers and children often being cut off from each other.

But the result of all of that is alienation. The result of all of that is that children are going long stretches of time without benefiting from a relationship with their dads, in most cases. And if that goes on long enough at a certain point it becomes really hard to rebuild that relationship.

And in some cases the custodial parent takes advantage of the situation by further alienating the child beyond just the natural alienation that sets in when your relationship with your parent goes from seeing the parent on a regular basis to seeing them a couple times a month.

So we talked a lot about that. In fact, I think sociologists are beginning to recognize alienation as a form of domestic or family abuse. I'm not sure if you actually call it a form of violence but [it is] certainly a form of psychological abuse to poison a child and their relationship with their former full-time parent.

How should a father react to a mother with custody wanting to take their children to another province, even if it means that the children might have a so-called 'better' life?

I don't think any child has a better life when they don't have a relationship with both of their parents. So it would have to be a really exceptional circumstance where whatever advantage they were getting from the new living situation outweighs the compromised relationship that they would suffer with their father in the case that you're laying out. It'd be hard for me to see any situation where that would be true.

My counsel to fathers is to seek equal parenting arrangements, to try to argue your case in family mediation or in family court for equal shared parenting. But, even if you don't get that, to put into the agreement that any kind of change of address has to be approved by both parents. And I would not think that a child would be well-served to move so far away from any parent that they couldn't maintain a regular, normal kind of relationship with both parents.

How do you suggest fathers maximize the quality of the time they have with their children?

I hate to say it, but the research is pretty clear: it's actually the quantity of time that counts more than the quality. There are certainly things you can do to enhance the quality of the time, but with the way that the child is forming memories, the duration of the experiences is really quite important.

CAFE co-sponsored a talk last fall from Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Boy Crisis, which details the challenges boys face growing up in a society that, he says, devalues them. Briefly, what is the boy crisis, and do you feel there is a similar crisis in Canada?

I know his book is largely focused on the U.S. Maybe I caught some Canadian statistics in there too. He definitely included that in its presentation. I would say it's a North American-wide, even probably worldwide or at least western hemisphere-wide phenomenon.

And it basically manifested in various areas of the life of a boy or a young man, all the way from growing up as a child in an environment, which, again, statistically is often going to be a single mother, and then going through the school system with a lack of male teachers. All of this means that boys are not getting male role models in their life. And we all need role models: girls need role models, boys need role models.

There's a big emphasis on encouraging young girls and young women to identify with professionally successful older women; you know, women who are astronauts or women who are executives of various companies. They're brought into schools to show girls that you could aspire to be anything you want, and that's a great message.

But the same is true for boys, and we don't seem to recognize that for some reason. So I've actually worked on a project where we would bring into the school system men from non-traditionally male professions: male nurses, male teachers, men working in the social service sector. Maybe I could do that one because that's what I work in. But the idea would be, again, to show boys and girls all the different options that they have, and then they can make decisions for themselves and realize their full potential by bringing all those barriers down, whether they're real barriers or just barriers psychologically in people's minds where they think they don't belong somewhere. And that's not true.

So that's a part of it is the role models as a very big thing. But we do what we see, when we look at boys transitioning to men. In post-secondary education, the under-enrollment of men versus women continues to be... actually, I think the trend is continuing to worsen in terms of male graduation rates from high school and enrollment rates in post-secondary education. And when you don't have an adequate education that sets you on a [successful] path, that is going to have all kinds of effects on your ability to earn a decent wage. Even your health is affected by poverty or by being in a situation where you don't have sufficient resources to deal with your basic needs, let alone the needs of your family.

So it starts at a young age, but then you see these factors kick in throughout the male life cycle. And even at the most extreme, most tragic end, if you look at suicide, the statistics are that men are three to four times more likely to die at their own hand than are women. And to an extent it puts the lie to the idea of men having all of this power in society when suicide is really the ultimate expression of powerlessness, of hopelessness, and it's men at a significant rate compared to women who are choosing to take their life.

So in our programs we tried to deal with some of that. We have mental health programs that emphasize suicide prevention. Our staff are trained to deal with people showing the signs of planning to take their life. We also have mentorship programs that are focused on boys and young men and try to provide the role models to supplement for the potential lack that they have in their life of male role models.

CAFE has generated controversy in the media and been aligned, correctly or incorrectly, with the men's rights movement, which is itself often considered anti-feminist. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, I guess I would tell them to come visit us. Nobody that's come into our space, who has seen what it is that we do at the Canadian Center for Men and Families, and met with me or met with the other volunteers that operate the programs has come away with that impression. You will read some of that. But what is striking is that the people who hold that kind of hostile view have never visited our facility; I don't think they have ever been to any of our events. And by contrast the people who were the most immersed in what we do are not the hostile people.

Now, you have to think about that because we have volunteers that seek us out, not because they originally care all that much about our cause but because they need to fulfill a certain number of volunteer hours for various reasons. So they come in, they see what we're all about, we give them work to do, and then they spend weeks, months, sometimes years with us, and they never go off and write any kind of critical articles or whatever.

That is counterintuitive. Because I hear all the time that our organization has this hidden agenda of hate and misogyny. If that were the case and the people that come into the organization who are simply looking to do some volunteer hours would be shocked and chagrined by what they found. And they would go off and they would write negative things.

But that's not where the negativity is coming from. It's coming from people who frankly have something to lose if the current paradigm, when it comes to gender equality, begins to be questioned. And that paradigm is that issues affect women as victims and men as perpetrators, that gender equality issues are sort of battles between men and women, and having all the rights and the privileges and women being innocent victims in all cases, and the truth is much more complicated than that. The truth is that everybody has issues. Everybody can be a victim of domestic violence. And that's a very different paradigm than the one that actually range right now when it comes to issues of gender equality.

A lot of people have a lot at stake professionally [and] socially in maintaining the status quo at all costs. And those tend to be the sources of the antagonism and hostility to what we're doing. It's not the people that are informed about what our motives and what our programs are actually all about. So when people are open-minded and they ask 'why is there this kind of criticism out there?', I just say, well, you should look into it yourself. Don't take my word for it. Don't take their word for it either. Just come and find out what we do. Come to our events, join one of our programs. Just come visit with us. And the odd time that that challenge is taken up and people do do that, they come away with a very positive impression about our work.

 

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