A taxi is supposed to be considered a safe alternative to walking home alone or operating a vehicle while inebriated. But what happens when this option becomes the backdrop to sexual assault or racial discrimination?
Issues regarding safe transport for Indigenous women are a concern in towns and cities across the country. Recently, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, light has been shone on a dark scenario Indigenous women face: various levels of sexual assault and racial discrimination while taking a cab. Complaints range from cab drivers demanding cash up front, to asking for sexual favours as payment.
Now, some women have decided to come forward, using social media as a platform. This has not only encouraged conversations within Indigenous communities, but also spurred people to initiate real solutions.
Leah Gazan, inspired by the informal discourse online, stepped up and took a spot on the Manitoba Taxicab Board in February this year. “In fact I’m the first Indigenous woman ever appointed,” she says.
Gazan is from the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation and a faculty member in education at the University of Winnipeg. She told Ricochet that the number of informal reports of inappropriate behaviour and allegations of assault prompted her to put her name forward for the board, which was in search of Indigenous representation.
When it comes to filing formal complaints with the Taxicab Board, there is an issue of accessibility. Gazan hopes to make the process smoother and more accessible for patrons. “An unsafe scenario benefits no one, and it’s also bad for business.”
For Gazan, a key starting point for meaningful change is education, for both drivers and patrons. When asked by Ricochet what advice she would give to individuals who may take a cab in the future, she suggests three key things: “Make sure a friend knows you intend to get into a cab, make note of what cab company you’re getting into, and always write down the cab number indicated both on the outside and inside of the car.”
This information is required for the complaint process, which is posted on the Manitoba Taxicab website. If a complaint involves criminal behaviour, Gazan urges patrons to contact the Winnipeg Police Service.
“Even further, if [lack of] transportation is an issue to file the complaint, one of the inspectors will come to you.” Gazan plans to further simplify this process in hopes that it becomes less threatening and more supportive.
Overall, she would like to see an increase in female taxi drivers, believing this would increase rider safety.
The Winnipeg Taxicab Board has also announced that a consultation on the industry will begin after the provincial election, which is scheduled for April 19.
In Saskatchewan, Brenda Redwood, a Saulteaux and Ojibway woman, decided to take matters into her own hands after hearing horror stories that involved sexual harassment, as well as women being driven to incorrect locations. "We just need these taxi drivers brought to justice and charged and exposed to the public," Redwood, a facilitator and social services provider in Regina, told Ricochet. She even recounts a story where a cab driver continued to call a customer after the service, requesting sexual favours.
This is why Redwood started to drive Indigenous women around herself, founding Regina Indigenous Safe Ride, which is now in the fundraising phase. Redwood charges a flat rate of $5 to $15, depending on the distance to the final destination. However, if the situation were dangerous, Redwood says she would waive the fee entirely.
Redwood is working on getting her Class 4 licence and approval from the City of Regina. “”I hope to have six taxies throughout the city, with two targeting the core area.” The group will be coordinated over Facebook.
She was inspired after seeing Ikwe Rides’ Facebook page, created in Winnipeg. The page’s mission statement says Ikwe Safe Ride “aims to provide a safe means of transportation for female members and children of our community through a volunteer run initiative. We embrace diversity and promote equality in our community. The safety of our volunteers and passengers is our number one priority.”
Ikwe Safe Ride simplifies the process by using the Facebook page as a booking tool. It is a volunteer-ran organization with no set price, although a contribution for fuel is strongly suggested.
This type of movement has encouraged a public discourse within the prairies about a very real problem. Whether a case is reported or not, there seems to be a strong need for an alternative for safe rides. CTV News found 15 reported instances of sexual assaults reported to police between January 2015 and February 19, 2016 in which the alleged perpetrator was a taxicab driver in the Winnipeg area.
As with most cases involving sexual harassment, filing a report can be a long and gruelling process that often discourages the victim from following through. If all goes as planned, Gazan hopes to make the reporting process more accessible for both victims and drivers. Redwood hopes her Safe Rides initiative will “keep Indigenous women safe from harm, to feel safe and to get to their destination without being harassed.“
Whether the situation is being dealt with on a board level or a grassroots level, the community has spoken, and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in taxicabs is changing in a big way.