December 6th marks the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. It’s a day in remembrance of the 14 female students who lost their lives in the École Polytechnique Massacre and all women whose lives were lost to gender-based violence. White Ribbon was created as a response to the massacre in 1991 by three men who felt men needed to speak up against violence. We reached out to a male ally that has been connected with us from the beginning to get his impressions about December 6th and his commitment to work to end violence against women.
After a busy TTC trip, down to the lower concourse level at Queen’s Park and through the glass doors, we found ourselves in a boardroom in one of Toronto’s office towers. Ready for a conversation about remembrance, allyship, gender-based violence, privilege and work culture. We met with Nirav Patel, Director of Human Resources, Corporate Groups, at Ontario Power Generation (OPG).
A warm welcome, a supportive white ribbon fastened on a blue suit and we are off to a very inspiring talk. Nirav starts by telling that OPG hosts a yearly breakfast, generously donating to White Ribbon and the cause of raising awareness about men’s role in ending gender-based violence. I was curious to know how Nirav got involved with White Ribbon and it goes back to the very beginning of the Campaign.
“It was 1989 and I think everybody saw in the news the tragic massacre that took place at École Polytechnique. I was in 8th grade, I was probably about 13 years old and many of us came to school confused. It was probably the first time in our generation's history that we saw this type of massacre in such a graphic and unjust way and we were trying to make sense of it. Why were women only targeted? Why did the shooter feel that he needed to come into a school, a place of learning, a place of safety and do this? And what did this mean for us moving forward? Why did this happen and what do we need to do to change this?”
Nirav was fortunate to have two teachers who facilitated a dialogue about the massacre: “this was some heavy stuff that we were talking about. And nobody talked about gender equity or violence against women in the way we might do today.”
The dialogue had started, and a few weeks later Nirav and his school took a trip downtown to participate in a march: “the White Ribbon movement began. It began with men coming together, Jack Layton bringing the troops together, saying we should create awareness. We should observe this as a sad issue, but we should also use this as a catapult to make some changes. We wore our white ribbons and that’s always sort of stayed with me.”
As Nirav entered high school, they took actions such as collecting donations for women’s shelters. Then “in the workplace the dialogue just sort of,” Nirav pauses, “not stopped, but you know, nobody really talked about this in the workplace back then.”
Again Nirav felt lucky to have a mentor that at the time encouraged him to do something about that. She told him to get creative, start small and go ahead and do something. He had her full support: “A few men got together and we decided to host a breakfast in and around the timeframe of 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, and we had male executives cook breakfast for the staff, they flipped pancakes, employees were invited to walk in and make a donation to a woman’s shelter that specifically supported women leaving abusive relationships. And we signed a pledge together to not tolerate violence against women and be advocates for gender equity. And then we had some speeches. That’s sort of how the event started and it’s been about 15 years and we are still doing it.” The funds now raised at the breakfast support White Ribbon’s efforts to end gender-based violence.
Much has happened since 1991. But much is yet to be done. For a long-term solution to ending violence, men must embrace their responsibility. Or in Nirav’s words: “In general, men must have courage.” Courage to stand up and speak out: “If you hear a joke that’s inappropriate then don’t laugh along, stop it and have a dialogue. It could be starting with ‘hey that’s not cool and here’s why it’s not cool’ or ‘I don’t appreciate that’. And as simple as that sounds, it’s something that men don’t often do.”
Many men don’t know how to intervene or support someone who has experienced violence. They feel it’s a women’s issue and don’t know what to say. “I think the many masks that men carry - being stoic, being strong, not showing emotions - really need to be removed. All of those things have perpetuated the society that we live in now, where we have so much gender-based violence, where we’re experiencing women talk about harassment and sharing their stories. We need to have more dialogue to end the tragic stuff that takes place.”
When it comes to the workplace, it’s also about having a dialogue to create a culture of respect. It doesn’t happen overnight, as Nirav tells me: “I think it needs to be fostered, I think it needs to be promoted and I think it needs to be talked about.”
In Nirav’s organization their code of conduct guides the behaviour: “It tends to be a roadmap in terms of a way to behave and something to adhere to to a certain extent. We want people to work safely and go home to their families every day without suffering any injuries. A lot of that goes to feeling respected and valued at work. The goal is to have a conversation about what respect looks like and sometimes having those specific conversations with specific teams help set the norm for the organization.”
In the #MeToo era it is especially important to have these conversations: “I think most men, I’m not speaking for all men, but most men should know or ought to know what appropriate behavior is. I think what happens is that a lot of men feel powerful and they feel like they can get away with it. With the MeToo movement, things have been called to light. It’s important and I really respect all women that have come forward to share those very personal stories. I think it has taken a lot of courage for those individuals to come out, but the good thing is that it’s created a dialogue for people and it’s created a call to men to be more mindful of their behavior, the language they use and how to be more respectful.”
Furthermore Nirav urges men to be open to coaching: “when women come to you to say ‘hey you didn’t handle that really well’ or ‘can I offer a different lens on something’, we should take feedback as a gift, especially when it comes from a woman on some of these issues related to gender equity specifically.”
Nirav has so much more at heart about allyship, being a role model, ending violence against women, men’s privilege and men’s need to be advocates that one blog story is not enough. Look out for our podcast and video coming soon!.
We encourage and invite other men to organize steps and donations to support the cause to end gender-based violence. Think about the kind of ally you want to be in your workplace, community, and personal life. Follow Nirav's example and take small steps to make a difference.
Check out our website for more tips, information, and resources and reach out to [email protected] on how to get involved in your workplace.
by Malene Nørby Pedersen