Sea Change

Hasan Hai con­vinces the men of New­found­land and Labrador to get fishy for a good cause

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - CHRISTINA PALAS­SIO

Hasan Hai con­vinces the men of New­found­land and Labrador to get fishy for a good cause.

IT’S EARLY MORN­ING in Cape Spear, N.L. A van heads to­ward the area’s iconic light­house as the sun climbs out of the At­lantic. The ve­hi­cle is full, but not with ea­ger tourists hop­ing for a sun­rise selfie. It’s packed with pho­tog­ra­phers and crewmem­bers on their way to meet mer­men. “MerB’ys,” ac­tu­ally. The wa­ter dwellers are ready for their close-ups. And they look flip­ping fan­tas­tic.

This marks the sec­ond year that a group of bearded New­found­lan­ders have shed their shirts and pulled on tails to pose as mis­ters March, De­cem­ber and com­pany. Their mis­sion: mak­ing a sassy cal­en­dar to sup­port a wor­thy cause. The first edi­tion, in 2017–18, sold more than 14,000 copies and raised $300,000 for Spirit Horse NL, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that uses equine­as­sisted ther­apy to sup­port peo­ple liv­ing with men­tal-health is­sues.

The tidal wave of in­ter­est in the cal­en­dar still sur­prises or­ga­nizer Hasan Hai. “This all started when a friend posted a photo of a bearded mer­man on my Face­book page and wrote, ‘You should do a thing,’” says Hai, who also founded the New­found­land and Labrador Beard and Mous­tache Club, a so­cial group. “When I put out an open call, I just thought it’d be me and a few ran­dom guys.” But 40 peo­ple fol­lowed up, and two months later there was a cal­en­dar.

The funds do­nated to Spirit Horse NL help peo­ple like Jen­nifer Mercer, who con­tacted the char­ity’s founder, Erin Gal­lant, while strug­gling with

deep de­pres­sion. “I couldn’t mo­ti­vate my­self to get out of bed,” she says. “At first, I was afraid of horses, but then you con­nect with them and they make you feel so com­fort­able. I don’t know where I’d be with­out them and my work with Erin. I give thanks ev­ery day.”

With this year’s cal­en­dar, Hai wants to raise even more money and fur­ther chal­lenge peo­ple’s no­tions of what con­sti­tutes mas­culin­ity: “There’s a very nar­row slot in which it’s deemed okay to be a man, and that’s so harm­ful,” he says. The 2019 MerB’ys are a big­ger gang—38 in to­tal—and they’re more di­verse, with dif­fer­ent gen­der iden­ti­ties, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions, body types, abil­i­ties and back­grounds.

The group has also ex­panded its reach. Hai and some of his crew drove their “Mer­mob’ile” from St. John’s to the west coast of New­found­land, then flew to cen­tral Labrador to con­nect with men across the prov­ince. In Twill­ingate, they met Mark. “He broke down in tears talk­ing about grow­ing up in ru­ral New­found­land, where men had to act a cer­tain way,” re­mem­bers Hai.

“He said he was do­ing this for his seven-year-old son, to show him that men could be dif­fer­ent, that they can be emo­tional. And his son said, ‘Dad, I’m so proud that you’re a MerB’y.’”

Us­ing a mytho­log­i­cal crea­ture to chal­lenge myths about mas­culin­ity has proven to be a pow­er­ful idea. Money raised this year will kick-start De­con­struct­ing Mas­culin­ity: En­gag­ing Men in Vi­o­lence Pre­ven­tion, a new pro­gram led by Vi­o­lence Pre­ven­tion NL, a coali­tion of 10 New­found­land and Labrador–based or­ga­ni­za­tions. “Vi­o­lence pre­ven­tion has of­ten been seen as a women’s is­sue, and I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it,” says Kevin O’Shea, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Pub­lic Le­gal In­for­ma­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of NL, who is in­volved in the new ini­tia­tive. “The only way we’re go­ing to be ef­fec­tive at pre­ven­tion is to look at the mind­set and cul­ture that causes vi­o­lence, to in­volve men and boys and to work col­lab­o­ra­tively to­ward change.”

Hai is ea­ger to con­tinue play­ing a role in chang­ing at­ti­tudes and en­cour­ages oth­ers to get in­volved in their com­mu­ni­ties: “Pos­i­tive change starts with the tini­est thing—lit­er­ally say­ing a kind word to some­one,” he says. “Just do some­thing dif­fer­ent, just keep push­ing for­ward, and even­tu­ally you’ll re­al­ize you’ve done some­thing re­ally grand.”

Hasan Hai is ea­ger to con­tinue play­ing a role in chang­ing at­ti­tudes and en­cour­ages oth­ers

to get in­volved.

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