The same charity that brought a controversial men's rights documentary to Ottawa last year is opening a new centre for men in Ottawa.

Called the Canadian Centre for Men and Families, it's the third such facility from the Canadian Association For Equality. There's already a centre in Toronto, and a third in Calgary that's open just one day a week.  

The association was in the news late last year in Ottawa after the Mayfair Theatre cancelled a screening of a men's rights documentary called The Red Pill because of complaints. The screening was to serve as a launch event for a fundraising campaign for the new centre.

The screening ultimately went ahead in a room at Ottawa City Hall, and CAFE went on to raise $80,000. The centre's grand opening is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the new office on Montreal Road in Vanier.

A peer support program for fathers dealing with separation or divorce will be among its initial offerings, said executive director Patrick Wright. Later plans include legal services for both victims of abuse and those accused of it, along with mental health services.

Mark and Austin-George Cooper

Mark Cooper donated this photograph of him and his son Austin-George Cooper for the new men's centre, after struggling himself with a shortage of supports while going through a separation and custody battle. (Mark Cooper Photography)

'You feel very much alone in this'

The centre is currently furnished with donated items, from furniture to artwork. 

Mark Cooper, an Ottawa photographer, donated photos including one of himself and his own son, Austin-George Cooper. He first connected with CAFE during an acrimonious separation and custody battle over the boy, who's now five.

"I thought this was a stand-up group, with what I thought to be genuine, fair motives," Cooper said.

Cooper said dads going through separation are in dire need of support groups and help to navigate the system around child custody.

"It's really quite a shock to your sensibilities when this happens to you," Cooper said. "It's a bit of a nightmare, frankly. You feel very much alone in this."

Getting men to ask for help first battle

One goal of the centre is to provide a place where men feel comfortable asking for help in the first place.

"For a lot of men, we have this attitude where it's not OK to seek help, whether it's for mental health problems or any kind of health issues," said executive director Patrick Wright. "Even seeing the dentist, a lot of guys don't want to do that. So I think having a centre even just on its own is a way of saying to men it's OK to ask for help.

The Ottawa director of the charity funding the centre said that reluctance to seek help is an outgrowth of a bigger problem in society.

"We just naturally empathize more with women and children than with men," said David Shackleton. "I think this comes out of our history where we expected men to be the warriors and go off to battle. If you empathize a lot with your warrior, it doesn't work so well."

Empathy from government is also lacking, Shackleton said, as evidenced by a shortage of government-funded services for men.

Women's advocate says centre is welcome

Women's advocates have frequently protested CAFE's events but one vocal activist in Ottawa said she's prepared to welcome the new centre.

Julie Lalonde on Sparks Street

Women's advocate Julie Lalonde says she welcomes the new centre for men, if the focus is on providing services instead of attacking feminism. (Susan Burgess)

Julie Lalonde, who runs the anti-harassment movement Hollaback! Ottawa, was among those who complained to the Mayfair about CAFE's film screening. She said CAFE supporters have interrupted events devoted to violence against women, to complain that men's stories of abuse by women were being left out. 

A shift to focus on service is encouraging, she said. 

"They are very vocal in saying there are no spaces for men, and so I appreciate that they took the initiative to actually create that space," she said.

Women as well as men stand to benefit if the centre allows men to talk about mental health concerns, the experience of childhood abuse and "what it means to be a man in the 21st century."

"We all suffer from men not being able to have those conversations."

As for whether government should fund more services for men, Lalonde said men and women should work together to push for more resources for all. But she also pointed out that government began providing services for women only after decades of activists creating sexual assault centres and shelters on their own, sometimes in their own homes. 

"We fought to get here, and CAFE needs to fight to be at the same space."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story suggested free support for male victims of sexual abuse is not available in Ottawa. In fact, service is available through Catholic Family Service Ottawa and its partners.
    Sep 10, 2017 3:00 PM ET