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VanRaes: Sex assault allegations signal need for cab industry changes

The first steps to changing the culture within Winnipeg's taxi industry is to change how the drivers are trained, writes Shannon VanRaes.

University of Winnipeg student Patricia Nosal in Winnipeg Manitoba, November 7, 2016. Nosal says she was propositioned by a taxi driver.

LYLE STAFFORD / FOR METRO

University of Winnipeg student Patricia Nosal in Winnipeg Manitoba, November 7, 2016. Nosal says she was propositioned by a taxi driver.

When I get into a taxicab in Winnipeg I can almost guarantee my conversation with the driver will run along the following lines:

"I'm going to 123 Fake Street"

"And where is that?"

"It's in Osborne Village."

"And that is where?"

"In the middle of the city, near the legislature, off of Osborne."

"And I get there how?"

"Oh, for Pete's sake. Ok, turn left here, then right. Keep going …"

While admittedly not every Winnipeg cab driver is quite this unfamiliar with city streets, I've had this conversation enough times to know that driver training is obviously inadequate.

But I've also had more unsettling experiences, including one driver who diverted to buy beer and another who purchased drugs while I was in the cab. I didn't challenge either driver at the time, because being a woman alone with a strange man it didn't seem safe to do so.

An attempt to report the second incident went nowhere, I was challenged on how I could possibly know the small plastic bag the driver received in exchange for cash was drugs. I was told it could have been anything, that it seemed "unlikely" and that it was my word against his —so I dropped it.

But far, far more disturbing than anything I've experienced is the seemingly unending litany of sexual assault allegations being made against Winnipeg cab drivers. Reports of two women being separately propositioned by Duffy's Taxi drivers surfaced earlier this month, followed by reports of a Unicity Taxi employee being assaulted by a driver while on the job.

In May, a 55-year-old driver was charged with sexually assaulting a passenger, while last December a university student called for help after a driver began asking about sexual activity.

In August 2015, another cab driver was charged with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old passenger and the list goes on. Given what we know about how few sexual assaults are actually reported, it's very likely that here too the reported incidents represent only a fraction of assaults that occur.

Last January, Pernell Flett launched the free-ride service called Neechi Rides in response to sexually inappropriate behaviour, assaults and discrimination against indigenous people being routinely reported. Ikwe Safe Ride Service offers a similar ride program for the same reasons.

Two weeks ago, the Southern Chiefs' Organization also raised serious concerns about the safety of women who use taxis in Winnipeg.

But while the issue is raised publicly every few years, there has never been a concerted effort to tackle the problem on the part of the taxicab companies or the Taxicab Board — the provincially operated body that overseas the industry.

It was recently suggested by one industry representative that the problem of drivers propositioning passengers could be solved by recording audio inside cabs. A ridiculous suggestion that ignores all of our privacy laws as well as the actual issues.

The problem is not that audio isn't recorded in side cabs, the problem is that there seems to be a culture within the taxi industry where sexual assault, harassment and discrimination is acceptable. And it's a problem that could be solved if either the government or industry cared to do so.

Currently, drivers only need to pass a criminal record check and receive a mere 44 hours of training to become a taxi driver, barely enough time to cover basic regulations, fares and have a quick glance at a map. Compare this to the black-cab drivers of London, where it takes an average of four years to become a licensed driver.

Surely, the first steps to changing the culture within Winnipeg's taxi industry is to change how the drivers are trained and require education on these issues, while also giving instructors an opportunity to identify problems before drivers take their first fare.

Because unless there are drastic changes, Winnipeggers will continue to be taken for a ride – just not the one they paid for.

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