WINNIPEG — Jackie Hartog opens the door to 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 taxicabs.
More than 46,000 rides
Ikwe co-director Christine Brouzes was also an early volunteer after facilitating a national roundtable for the 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.
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.'
Many of Ikwe's passengers share stories about inappropriate sexual comments while taking taxis and Brouzes said a small number of women have had violent encounters.
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, who wasn't married. "I said that because I felt unsafe."
Drivers, riders screened
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 pick-up and negotiate a donation, which goes towards 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 were providing 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.
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.
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.
'Pretty clear things are not safe'
Indigenous activist Leah Gazan had joined the board to help improve its relationship with the Indigenous community. The previous legislation governing taxis was "archaic," but Gazan said 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. But, 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."
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