Too dangerous to take cabs in Winnipeg, says founder of Neechi Rides
'Seems like everyone I pick up, it's the same story: I'll never take a cab again,' says Pernell Flett
It's a one-man ride service for indigenous people in Winnipeg, and while Pernell Flett isn't asking for money, he is collecting passengers' stories.
"Some of them tell how cab drivers try to touch them, feel them up and take them places they don't want to be," Flett said of the indigenous people he drives around the city.
"A lot of them won't speak out about it; they're too scared to say anything about it."
Flett started Neechi Rides on Dec. 15. It's a ride service that he offers for free, and it is run out of his own pocket.
"When I watch the news at nighttime and see all the problems … I told my girlfriend, 'You know what? I'm going to do something about this.'"
When Flett first started the service he intended to charge riders, he said, but cab companies informed him of laws regulating the industry. Flett said he will continue to provide free rides while he goes through the process of acquiring a taxi licence.
"My niece, she was 14 at the time. We called a cab for her and on the way down there, she come running in just spastic. I was like 'What's happening?' She goes, 'Uncle, that cab driver just freaked me out all the way down here and asked me personal questions,'" he said.
"I was like, 'What kind of questions?' She's like, 'He asked me, "Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have sex with your boyfriend? Like, you're pretty and, you know, we'll go in the back alley here and we'll have sex. You won't have to pay me nothing for the cab fare."'"
Flett said he reported the incident to police.
Southern Chiefs Organization urges reports
Flett isn't the only one collecting these types of stories.
"The Southern Chiefs Organization has heard, over the years, several different encounters of discrimination, racism and violence perpetrated by owners, drivers and dispatch clerks," said Shauna Fontaine, the organization's family violence prevention co-ordinator.
"In November, when we were really hearing this continuing and really happening with indigenous women, we put a call out to the public to hear their stories."
"If somebody appears to be indigenous, we're hearing that they're being asked to pay up front," said Fontaine. "We hear a lot of people talking about racial slurs being called at people, especially women.
"I think that there's this idea that indigenous women are seen as less than non-indigenous women, or seen as not as worthy. So they're treated as sexual objects; they're called down; sexual advances are made on our women by drivers. We've heard about actual assaults, both sexual and physical."
Fontaine said another common story involves taxicab drivers taking people on long routes to increase the fare. Some situations were violent, involving customers being thrown from a moving vehicle or kicked out of the cab in an unknown area in the middle of the night, she said.
"I've even heard stories from elders being called down when they're just trying to get to hospital for health services," she said.
Fontaine said the Southern Chiefs Organization is in contact with the Manitoba Taxicab Board, but it needs more people to report incidents of abuse and discrimination directly to the board, rather than to the cab companies or dispatchers.
"We're trying to get the message out there that the Taxicab Board regulates the taxicab drivers and operators and the taxicabs," said Fontaine.
"They keep their camera video surveillance for seven days, so we've been trying to inform the public about that so that they know. The video cameras cannot be turned off in the taxis, the drivers do not have access to turn them off, but the Taxicab Board has access to those videos for seven days. So if an incident has occurred, we encourage people to call them so that they can get the record and document those situations and deal with it internally."
Companies aware of concerns, says Taxicab Board chair
Taxicab Board chair David Sanders said the stories are concerning, but they need to be filed properly.
"The board takes these things very seriously," said Sanders. "But if it doesn't come to us, there's not much we can do about it."
Sanders said Winnipeg cab companies are aware of the concerns brought forward by the Southern Chiefs Organization.
"By all means, they can call the dispatch company, because they have some influence over their drivers and owners. They have their own rules, where they'll suspend and fine drivers," he said.
Drivers are updating training on handling accessibility issues in the next year, and that's an opportunity for the Taxicab Board to sensitize drivers to the issues indigenous riders are facing, he said.
Since Sanders joined the board last May, he has encountered a number of sexual harassment complaints and the board suspended the drivers' licences, he said.
The Taxicab Board has also launched a comprehensive review of the industry. Consultants are gathering data from dispatch companies and reviewing complaints from the board. Public consultation will start once the provincial election is over.
"We'll be having a significant consultation process inviting everyone, certainly the general public but also drivers, owners and the hotel industry and everyone who cares to provide their experience, their comments and their suggestions," he said.
Fontaine tells indigenous men and women to take control of their own safety.
"My advice is to be aware of the taxicab that you're hopping into, what company it is — the taxicabs have numbers on their cabs, so you know exactly which taxi you are in," she said.
"I think that's unfortunate that we have to advise the public to do that, but I think it's important in today's society that you have to protect yourself and keep yourself safe — if you have a cellphone, contacting somebody, letting them know which cab number you're in, where you're going."
As a father of four daughters, Flett is particularly concerned, especially for indigenous men and women.
"I would never trust my daughters to get in a cab. Ever," he said.
"It seems like everyone I pick up, it's the same story: 'I'll never take a cab again.'"