The Province of Manitoba delivered a significant blow to Uber's expansion plans in Winnipeg late Thursday afternoon.
Drew Caldwell, Manitoba's Minister of Municipal Government, said anyone driving for the taxi-alternative service would be doing so illegally.
The taxi-alternative service works similar to a ride share program.
It enlists drivers with their own cars and insurance and uses an app to book rides and pay fares in unlicensed "taxis." It’s already in a number of Canadian cities including Vancouver and Toronto but has yet to expand to Manitoba.
Uber officials have already met with Fred Meier, Manitoba’s deputy minister for municipal government, and are scheduled to meet with him again next week.
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However Thursday afternoon, Caldwell issued a statement confirming anyone who opted to drive for Uber would be doing so illegally.
In a statement, Caldwell said, "Under current rules, any driver who wants to work for Uber would need to obtain a taxicab license through the Taxicab Board and would have to conform to all applicable liability and safety provisions."
The statement continued, "Anyone found driving as a fee for service without a taxi driver’s license will be subject to penalties as prescribed in the Taxicab Act.”
Uber has already advertised the need for drivers in Winnipeg and hosted a recruitment event in the city.
Officials with Uber said they received an “overwhelming response” from people looking to partner with Uber in Winnipeg but would not confirm if they do plan on launching the service here.
Manitoba’s Taxicab Act says no person can operate a taxicab without a license, and anyone who does is guilty of an offence and could face fines of up to $500 for a first offence and $1,000 for additional offences.
If fees are not paid, the province could cancel the driver’s license or car registration under the act. More extreme penalties could result in a ban on registering vehicles in Manitoba for up to two years after the offence.
Prior to the statement, Uber said they were optimistic "Winnipeg legislators will see the benefits of Uber and embrace it."
They added, "Collaboration will ultimately lead to the best results for riders and drivers in the cities where we operate or will operate."
The statement also called ridesharing "the way of the future."
Uber officials said they were working on a response to Caldwell's statement late Thursday.
Cab operaters worried, Unicity president says
Unicity Taxi president Gurmail Mangat says the city’s taxi industry is extremely concerned about Uber's advertising and driver recruitment events in Winnipeg.
“The whole industry is very worried about that,” he said. “We’re concerned there’s not much business in the city and naturally it will affect our living.”
Uber’s arrival in other Canadian cities has been contentious.
Mangat said the industry plans to fight Uber’s arrival in Winnipeg.
“We’re prepared to lobby to the government. Without government help, we won’t succeed,” he said, pointing to Toronto, Ottawa and Calgary’s ongoing battles with Uber. “There’s so many concerns we want to bring to the government’s attention.”
Mangat said in addition to drivers’ bottom lines, there’s also a concern about public safety.
“We are concerned with the public as well,” he said. “The safety of the public is not granted in those cars. They are not inspected or regulated by government as the taxis are. We inspect our cars twice a year with the taxi board … a lot of things are done.”
But as far as Canada’s Competition Bureau goes – Uber is a good thing. The bureau issued a statement of support for the company and other similar services in late November, saying digital dispatch services like Uber could introduce lower prices and more convenience to the taxi industry – which would improve service.
Recently, Duffy’s Taxi quietly launched an iPhone app that allows users to book cabs, and Unicity Taxi has a similar app in the works for early 2015.
“[Our] cabs are safe … they’re properly maintained, regulated by government. We are part of this city. We’d like to stay here,” said Mangat.
How do Winnipeg's cab numbers stack up?
According to a 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada, Winnipeg has the second-lowest number of taxis per capita compared to other large Canadian cities. Only Vancouver has fewer.
For every 10,000 people, Winnipeg has about six taxis. That's fewer than half of what Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal have.
Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon, Windsor and Regina also beat out Winnipeg in terms of number of cabs per capita.