ANALYSIS: How the Push Against ‘Toxic Masculinity’ in Canada’s Hockey, Military May Affect ‘Healthy Masculinity’

ANALYSIS: How the Push Against ‘Toxic Masculinity’ in Canada’s Hockey, Military May Affect ‘Healthy Masculinity’
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)
Tara MacIsaac
11/2/2023
Updated:
11/2/2023
0:00

Rooting out “toxic masculinity” in hockey culture was a central topic at Hockey Canada’s Beyond the Boards Summit in September. “Toxic masculinity” has similarly been a topic in calls to change the culture of the Canadian Armed Forces.

But some academics and others say attempts to root out “toxic” masculinity may threaten masculinity as a whole.

“Suiting up and going out there and playing a physical sport—as a boy, it turned me into a man,” former hockey player Thomas Joseph of British Columbia told The Epoch Times. He preferred to use a pseudonym, fearing professional repercussions for speaking publicly on the controversial topic of gender.

A Player’s Perspective

Mr. Joseph, 40, played hockey throughout his youth, and his old teammates still stay in touch through a group chat called “The Dressing Room.” The camaraderie was an important part of hockey for Mr. Joseph, but so were lessons about hard work, fair play, and protecting the vulnerable—think defence players protecting a goalie.

Even the toughest lessons from the most “masculine” coaches are now fond memories for him. Sometimes that involved crude language or rough treatment, but you “straighten up and do your job properly for the team,” Mr. Joseph said. And those lessons have carried him throughout his life.

“I think if there’s anything toxic about it, it’s not solely masculine. It’s toxic humanity,” he said.

Behaviours often attributed to “toxic masculinity” happen in women’s sports, too, he said. He cited, for example, reported problems of player abuse and hazing in Harvard University’s women’s hockey team.

Though a few media reports came out about it this year, it “didn’t make front-page news like it would if this was a male thing,” Mr. Joseph said.

“There’s healthy masculinity,” he said, and that’s what he feels he experienced in hockey.

Traditional Versus Toxic Masculinity

Samuel Veissière, assistant professor of psychology at McGill University, says that “traditional masculinity” and “toxic masculinity” are often—erroneously, in his opinion—viewed as one and the same.
“According to recent American Psychological Association [APA] guidelines for the treatment of boys and men, traditional masculinity is harmful and must be done away with,” he wrote in a 2019 article for Areo magazine. “Masculinity has earned a reputation as a top villain.”
Mr. Veissière and a psychologist who helped write the guidelines, the University of Redlands’ Fredric Rabinowitz, discussed their opposing views on a radio program out of California called AirTalk shortly after the guidelines were released in 2018.
The definition of “traditional masculinity” given in the APA guidelines includes “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.”

Mr. Rabinowitz noted—interestingly enough, as Canada considers the role of masculinity in its military—that these traits can be good, especially in a war zone or similar settings.

However, they make men less likely to seek help for mental or emotional distress, he said, and can lead to various problems, including a higher suicide rate, aggression, and addiction.

Mr. Veissière acknowledged the APA guide’s good intentions to help men, but he said it pathologizes some of the best traits of traditional masculinity.

It’s about character education and a “framework” for raising boys to make these characteristics virtues, he said, noting, for example, the importance of the masculine traits of self-sacrifice and stoicism.

While stoicism is often painted as the unhealthy suppression of emotions, it’s really about “what I would call self-regulating strategies,” he said.

Mr. Veissière says being male is often lumped in with other immutable traits viewed as “bad” in the polarized, “binary thinking” of today’s social sciences and humanities education. “Settlers,” white people, and heteronormativity are also often portrayed as bad and oppressive, he said in his article. On the other hand, women, “people of colour,” transgender people, and indigenous people are viewed as good and as victims.

Similar binaries are present throughout policy papers on culture change in Hockey Canada and the CAF.

‘Isms’

A National Defence-backed group called Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security published a briefing paper titled “Military Masculinity and Culture Change in the Canadian Armed Forces” in April.

Its introductory paragraph states that CAF’s culture discriminates against “those who do not fit the traditional image and ideal of the male, masculine, white, heterosexual, and able-bodied soldier.”

“Gender norms are one central aspect of the military’s culture that requires serious interrogation and rethinking,” it says, adding that “heteronormativity, colonialism, white supremacy, ability, and more” should also be rethought.

The CAF’s 2020 document titled “The Path to Dignity and Respect” speaks of “harmful gender norms,” including “outdated concepts of what it is to be a warrior.” It flags “characteristics that are typically considered to be desirable heterosexual male characteristics, such as assertiveness, aggression, competitiveness, and authoritativeness,” as being potentially harmful.
Teresa Anne Fowler, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University, presented a paper at Hockey Canada’s Beyond the Boards Summit in September that criticized hockey culture on similar grounds.

“The fabric of ice hockey [is] woven from threads of colonization, nationalism, whiteness, hegemonic masculinity, and violence,” she said.

“Their toughness was valorized—their masculinity was privileged,” she said of players in the past. “However, the game has changed, and it is time for a change again and for Hockey Canada to take the lead in shifting hockey cultures, specifically elite white masculine hockey culture and performances of masculinity.”

Hockey Canada’s chief operating officer Pat McLaughlin told the Canadian Press during the summit that the organization is addressing toxic masculinity along with all the “isms.”
“We want to get at the ‘isms’ as we move forward,” he said. “It’s really, really important that we start somewhere, and so we’ve started with toxic masculinity.”

Beyond Hockey, Military

Canada’s national sport and its military—two traditionally masculine institutions—are grappling with masculinity, arguably reflecting the broader treatment of masculinity nationwide.
Many worry that traditional masculinity is under threat from efforts to root out “toxic masculinity” beyond just hockey and the military. More than one-third (36 percent) of Canadian men believe traditional masculinity is under threat, according to an Ipsos poll published in March 2022.
Canada’s academic institutions have also sought to address “culture” issues by targeting masculinity. In academia, as in hockey and the military, the issue of masculinity often comes up in conversations about sexual abuse allegations, but also in “culture” problems as a whole.
Mr. Veissière argued in his Areo article that academia’s calls to eradicate “toxic masculinity” are misguided.
“Academic culture’s unfortunate practice of hiring, encouraging, and rewarding weak men may be largely to blame [for sexual assault],” he said. Men are naturally stronger and more prone to risk, he said, and those traits can be polished into “strengths of confidence and the ability to reassure, protect and respect those weaker than him.”
“Manliness is ... antithetical—indeed it is the antidote—to toxic masculinity,” he said.