'I felt unsafe': Indigenous safe-ride service for women can't keep up with need

Jackie Hartog opens the door of her white van as she pulls out her cellphone, checking the Ikwe Safe Rides Facebook group to see where she is heading next.

Ride-hailing service created as alternative to cabs has provided more than 46,000 rides to Winnipeg women

Christine Brouzes, co-director of Ikwe Safe Rides, said many passengers share stories about inappropriate sexual comments in taxis and some have had violent encounters. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

Jackie Hartog opens the door of her white van as she pulls out her cellphone, checking the Ikwe Safe Rides Facebook group to see where she is heading next.

She's been volunteering with the Winnipeg non-profit for about two years and has provided transportation for women around the city.

"It's fantastic. I always tell the women that, during the day, I work with kids, so I'm always talking with kids, that's my job," Hartog said with a laugh. "Then I go out in the van and they do me a humongous favour. They talk to me, I talk to them. I listen, they listen to me."

Hartog was one of the first drivers to get behind the wheel when Ikwe was founded in 2016 after Indigenous women came forward about their safety concerns in taxis.

Ikwe co-director Christine Brouzes was also an early volunteer after facilitating a roundtable for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Brouzes left that meeting feeling helpless.

"I heard about Ikwe from a friend and a light bulb went off. I thought this is what I can do," Brouzes said. "I felt that if I could help keep one woman safe by providing a safe transportation ride for her, then that would be my tiny pebble in the river to help this situation."

Ikwe — which means woman in the Anishinaabemowin language — has now provided more than 46,000 rides. The Facebook-based group has more than 15,600 members and 43 drivers.

Drivers screened, trained

Many of Ikwe's passengers share stories about inappropriate sexual comments while taking taxis, Brouzes said.

Diane Marr is a regular passenger, using the service to get groceries and even go out of town for work as an actress.

"I've been in a cab before and the driver pulled over and said, 'Do you want to go for a drink?' and I said 'No, take me home, my husband is waiting,' " said Marr, although she wasn't married. "I said that because I felt unsafe."

Anyone identifying as a woman can request access to the group and go through a vetting process. Once in, passengers post a request saying where they'd like to go. A driver replies and then, in a private chat, the two work out the pickup and negotiate a donation, which goes toward gas and vehicle maintenance.

Drivers are also screened, must submit a child abuse registry check and are trained before they hit the road.

Similar services have started across the country, but most have not lasted long. A new female ride-hailing service called DriveHer started in Toronto in mid-March and CabShe in Kitchener ran for a short time before being shut down by licensing requirements.

In response to the 2017 acquittal of a taxi driver accused of sexual assault, women in Halifax provided rides through the hashtag HaliLadyCab, but it was informal and also didn't last. A different service, Lady Drive Her, does provide rides to and from the city airport.

Demand growing

Meanwhile, demand for Ikwe keeps growing. It recently partnered with a vehicle-for-hire company to transport larger groups in Winnipeg.

"We exist because we want to provide a safe alternative transportation for women of all backgrounds and cultures and ages and economic statuses in our city. And that shouldn't be growing," Brouzes said. "That mandate should be met and not need to exist anymore."

Brouzes said she had hoped changes to regulation within the industry itself would mean safer rides. Instead, new legislation last November — paving the way for ride-hailing companies like Uber — dissolved the Manitoba Taxicab Board, which regulated the industry.

Indigenous activist Leah Gazan had joined the board to help improve its relationship with the Indigenous community. The previous legislation governing taxis was "archaic," Gazan said, but she's now concerned there is no oversight.

"I totally understand why women are taking charge of our own safety because it's pretty clear that things are not safe, and it hasn't been taken seriously enough," she said.

Responsibility has fallen to local municipalities. City of Winnipeg regulations say concerns over service levels, including inappropriate comments from drivers, are directed to the cab companies, and criminal complaints go to police.

Back behind the wheel, Hartog said she hopes one day all rides will be safe. Until then, she will keep volunteering to show her daughters it takes a community to protect women.

"I want to bring this to my girls and to make sure that they will help whenever they see someone in need."