The Status of Women Council of the NWT has launched a taxi safety survey following reports on social media from several women who say they’ve had troubling experiences with drivers.
The anonymous online survey, which opened on Friday, asks multiple-choice questions about violence, harassment or inappropriate behaviour while in the territory’s taxis.
The survey allows respondents to share stories of negative experiences they’ve had either as a passenger or a driver.
Louise Elder, executive director of the council, encouraged anyone using taxis to fill out the survey.
“We noticed a theme emerging here that, in particular, women were expressing concerns about not feeling safe in taxis. So we decided to create a platform where they could share those experiences with us,” she explained.
“We are concerned that it may be happening more than we had realized, that the harassment may be happening more, that we may be seeing sexual assault.”
The survey comes after NNSL reported the concerns of several women about taxi safety in Yellowknife. In comments posted to the Yellowknife Classifieds Facebook page on February 7 – a thread since shared more than 100 times – women shared stories of unwanted sexual advances from taxi drivers.
Kristie Lafferty was among those describing a scary experience with a taxi driver.
Two years ago, Lafferty said, she was walking home from downtown Yellowknife when she noticed a taxi following her. When the driver pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride, Lafferty explained she didn’t have any money. He offered to give her a ride free of charge because it was cold.
Lafferty said she would normally decline such an offer, but it was -30C outside, she was only wearing a sweater, and she had been drinking.
“I hoped it was someone trying to do a good deed,” she said.
‘I was at my most vulnerable’
The driver picked up and dropped off several other passengers before they headed to Lafferty’s home on the other side of town. When he offered to buy her breakfast, Lafferty said she declined but the driver was insistent and stopped at Tim Hortons anyway.
While they were waiting in line, Lafferty said the driver asked if she wanted to go to his home to keep drinking, saying he had a lot of alcohol. When she said no, she felt he wasn’t happy.
“I wanted to hop out and walk home by myself and just thank him for that. But he drove kind-of fast and it felt like I couldn’t do that,” she said.
The driver then told Lafferty he needed to pick up another passenger and they ended up in Kam Lake, a fair distance from her home. At that point, Lafferty said the driver gave her an ultimatum to go home with him or walk home alone in the cold.
Lafferty said her phone was dead so she wasn’t able to contact anyone for help. Thinking on her feet, she decided to tell the driver she needed to go home as she was feeling sick and apologized. She said that seemed to change his attitude.
“He tried to make me feel sorry for him in a way, because he was saying, ‘Oh, you must think that I’m a creep,’” she described. “I just pretty-much had to play nice during the whole thing and say, ‘No, I don’t, I’m just very ill right now.’”
Lafferty said the driver dropped her off at home and asked for her phone number. While she was able to gave him a fake number as her phone was dead, she worried that he knew where she lived.
“It was a moment where I was at my most vulnerable,” she said of the experience. “It really made me angry how he tried to take advantage of me for that.”
‘Even once is just too much’
Lafferty said she didn’t report the incident to the RCMP as she had an “awful” experience reporting another incident where she was victim-blamed.
“I’ve even had officers say to me that I wasted their time and that I too should have been arrested,” she said. “It just made me not want to deal with the police and I thought I’m home now, I’m safe, that’s all that matters.”
Lafferty said it concerns her that two years after her experience, other women are still reporting unsafe taxi incidents.
“My friends in Yellowknife, they all have at least one really bad, creepy experience with cab drivers,” she said. “Even once is just too much.”
Lafferty feels that cab companies in the city are not taking responsibility for their drivers or adequately addressing concerns. She said she’d like to see complaints investigated and believes the Status of Women Council’s survey is a step in the right direction.
“If we continue to not say or do anything about it, it’s going to keep on going,” she said.
Taxi drivers in Yellowknife have also expressed concerns about their safety.
In November 2018, City Cab driver Ahmad Mahamud Ali died after he was assaulted by an intoxicated passenger.
Dozens of drivers held a procession in Ali’s memory and called for greater protections for taxi drivers in Yellowknife, including changing legislation to allow them to unlatch their seatbelts within city limits.
Reporting system ‘pretty overwhelming’
Status of Women Council executive director Elder said the survey aims not only to gather stories but also gauge whether people know how and where to report incidents.
“One of the things we’ve found here is the system’s pretty overwhelming and people don’t know what they can report, they don’t know who they can report, they don’t necessarily feel comfortable reporting,” she said.
Elder said if an incident is criminal in nature, it can be reported to the RCMP. Inappropriate behaviour can be reported to taxi companies.
Anyone who has experienced sexual assault can access a range of services through health centres.
Shirley McGrath, general manager of City Cab, said if anyone has a complaint, they can contact the company with the car number or the date and time the taxi was called, the number the call was made from, and where the pickup point was.
She said administration will then look up the driver and the complaint will be forwarded to City Cab’s board of directors.
McGrath said anyone taking a taxi should take note of the cab’s number, which is the easiest way to identify a driver. She also recommends sitting in the back seat.
If the driver “gets out of hand,” she said passengers can ask to see their driver’s chauffeur permit to get their name and report them to the RCMP.
The NWT taxi safety survey is in coordination with a similar survey that recently closed in the Yukon.
Under that bylaw, all taxis in Whitehorse are required to have GPS and a security camera that must operate for the duration of each ride.
In Yellowknife, taxis are regulated under the city’s livery licence bylaw. While that bylaw requires taxi companies to keep written records of taxi numbers, drivers and work shifts, it does not require cabs to have security cameras or GPS.
According to the city, the bylaw is scheduled for review in the last quarter of 2021.
McGrath said all of City Cab’s taxis are equipped with GPS. Some cars have dashboard cameras, though she said that equipment is not standard.
Elder said the results of the NWT survey will be compiled into a report that the council hopes to make public. The council’s governing board will decide on any recommendations for changes.