Warning: This report discusses issues related to sexual violence, assault, and abuse. Details of where to find help in the NWT are included in this article.
More than 500 instances of women feeling unsafe while taking taxis have been reported in a survey carried out by the Status of Women Council of the NWT.
The council launched the anonymous online survey on February 12, following an NNSL report and a Facebook thread shared to the Yellowknife Classifieds page that detailed several women’s experiences of unwanted sexual advances from drivers.
The survey’s results and findings, shared with Cabin Radio, are based on 168 responses from across the territory.
Almost 90 percent of the respondents were women, split evenly between Caucasian women and women who are Indigenous, Black, or of another minority. Just over half were aged 25 to 39. Nearly 10 percent of respondents were taxi drivers themselves, a group the council had invited to participate.
The 500 experiences captured indicate most passengers had felt unsafe during multiple cab journeys. Eighty percent of the reported events related to sexual harassment or assault, and 10 percent of respondents reported being sexually touched.
Specific experiences varied.
One person shared how a driver had offered them money to come back to his house and “hang out,” while another said the driver made sexualized comments about their body and appearance for the duration of the ride.
Other stories included drivers’ attempts to solicit sexual favours for payment, physically touching the passenger while they were intoxicated, and threatening to use the passenger’s personal information – such as their phone number or address – to stalk them later.
“Unfortunately, the findings weren’t surprising, given what we heard anecdotally,” said Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council of the NWT.
Knowing where to report
Alongside tracking respondents’ stories, the survey examined whether people who had such experiences knew how to report them.
Forty percent of respondents didn’t think they could report what had happened to them, while 27 percent said they didn’t feel safe doing so or feared retribution.
This means two-thirds of respondents ultimately did not report what took place.
Janet Dean, who holds responsibility for policy, projects, and outreach at the Status of Women Council, said those numbers were “disempowering.”
Dean said the results indicated a larger feeling of powerlessness among those in vulnerable situations.
“They don’t want to report because they don’t feel safe,” she said. “They don’t know how to report, they don’t know who to report it to. The reporting systems have to be made clear and have to be communicated to the users.”
In a presentation given to the City of Yellowknife and shared with Cabin Radio, the council highlighted direct quotes from survey respondents.
“I felt uncomfortable, anxious, and fearful about something worse happening,” one said.
Another wrote: “As a woman, I like to speak up against this kind of thing, but I didn’t feel comfortable for fear of angering the driver.”
While numerous respondents shared experiences of overt victimization, Dean clarified that the majority of respondents simply reported feeling vulnerable and at-risk.
Instances of sexual assault or harassment where the behaviour is criminal in nature should be reported to the RCMP, she added.
However, if the driver didn’t try to touch someone or wasn’t explicitly sexual – but instead asked questions that were too personal, or made the passenger feel uneasy – Dean acknowledged that some people may not know where to go.
“It’s that kind of thing that a lot of participants did not feel was reportable because it was a discomfort,” Dean explained.
Dean and Elder emphasized someone who wants to report an incident that was inappropriate, but not necessarily criminal, should report their experience to the city’s bylaw office or directly to the taxi company.
What can be done?
Sexual harassment wasn’t the only recurring problem highlighted by the survey.
Dean said the council found many drivers used their positions of power inappropriately, such as demanding payment up-front or ejecting passengers from their cars in an unsafe manner. What’s more, a proper understanding of consent and professional behaviour – especially when it comes to intoxicated passengers – was often reported to be missing.
The taxi system itself enabled many of these breaches, Dean continued, through the practices of providing drivers with passengers’ cellphone numbers, subcontracting drivers’ vehicles during their off hours, and a lack of physical barrier between the driver and passenger.
Similar issues have been noted in other jurisdictions in Canada.
Concerns about taxi safety in Whitehorse, for instance, stretch back at least a decade.
In 2017, several women’s groups called on the city to make changes to its Vehicle for Hire bylaw. The same taxi safety survey was conducted by the Yukon Status of Women Council and Yukon Women’s Coalition this year and received comparable responses.
In the final portion of the NWT’s survey, the council gave respondents the opportunity to make suggestions for improvement. Many suggested that drivers receive more training about boundaries and what is or isn’t appropriate, as well as a better understanding of the power dynamics at play.
Dean said the council has adopted a training curriculum developed by its Yukon counterpart that teaches drivers about consent, boundaries, appropriate communication, and how to create a respectful and safe environment for passengers.
She added the NWT Status of Women Council is “ready to go and deliver that training” the moment a taxi company wants it.
Relevant laws and regulations need to be reviewed and updated as well, Dean and Elder argued, and pointed to Whitehorse’s revised bylaw as an example to follow.
Under its Vehicle for Hire bylaw, all taxis in Whitehorse are required to have GPS and a security camera that must operate for the duration of each ride. Yellowknife’s Livery Licence bylaw – which regulates taxis – requires companies to keep written records of taxi numbers, drivers and work shifts, but does not require cabs to have security cameras or GPS.
According to the City of Yellowknife, the bylaw is scheduled for review in the last quarter of 2021, when recommendations for improvements will be made. Elder said the council will “have an opportunity” to provide input.
Other recommendations from the council’s survey included improving awareness around reporting systems in place, ensuring the driver’s identification is visible and accurate at all times, and potentially developing an app that would allow users to report anonymously.
This would allow people more options in reporting their experiences and could help eliminate barriers they feel in seeking justice, Elder said.
“It’s something they can do in their own space, they can do on their own time … when they choose to do so, and where they choose to do so is empowering,” she said.
‘We want to see change’
So far, the council has met with city staff and bylaw officers to share its survey findings. The council has offered to meet with taxi companies in the NWT and across other territories to share the findings and examine next steps.
“We want to see change come as a result of this,” Dean said.
“The ability to fully participate in society as a woman … is a fundamental right, and I think not all women are in a position or have the opportunity to do that with their own vehicle.
“How can you ensure your kids are healthy if you can’t take a cab to take them to healthcare? How can you ensure that you’re eating healthy food by taking a cab to the grocery store when the closest one to walk to at minus-50 is the corner store that sells chips and pop?
“To live the lifestyle of full integration into society, you have to have access to ways and means. Taxis are one of those ways and means that we have every right to participate in and to feel safe as we do so.”
The council intends to conduct a follow-up survey next winter to re-assess the situation and track whether or not the survey ultimately resulted in change.
“Our concern is always that we issue a report, we have a couple of interviews, bring it to people’s attention, and then nothing happens,” Elder said. “Our commitment to this is to continue the dialogue, do another survey, see if there’s been any impact or not, and if there hasn’t been … then how do we address that?”
Dean added: “I want that to be the feel-good end of the story, that we say we found this out and … everybody pulled together, because we know that this isn’t OK. I am hoping that’s what next year’s survey will say.”
Who can help?
RCMP should be contacted regarding any incident where a crime is believed to have been committed.
To contact the City of Yellowknife’s municipal enforcement division if an incident involving a taxi may have contravened a bylaw (like the Livery Licence bylaw), call (867) 920-5630 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the division in person at City Hall from 11am-2pm on weekdays.
The YWCA NWT has a 24/7 crisis line for those experiencing or escaping intimate partner/domestic violence. To speak to someone, call 1-866-223-7775.
The Native Women’s Association of the NWT victim services can offer support and services to Indigenous women, men, and children across the NWT, and call be reached toll-free at 1-866-459-1114.
Kids Help Phone is available 24/7 for young people. To talk to someone, call 1-800-668-6868, use live chat at www.kidshelpphone.ca, or text 686868.
The NWT Helpline is available for free support to NWT residents, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-661-0844 to speak with a trained responder.