Indigenous women form taxi collective; avoid sexual assaults

Jackie Traverse, founder of Ikwe Safe Rides

A TAXI RIDE TO A STRANGE MAN’S BED is not where she wanted to go, but that’s where a 19-year-old Indigenous woman wound up in Winnipeg in 2016. The risk of sexual assault at the hands of a taxi driver was real and ever-present for all Winnipeg women back then. Not now. Not since Indigenous women in the city took collective direct action to protect themselves.

The women created Ikwe Safe Rides in 2016. It is a non-profit ride-share service that matches volunteer female drivers with women needing a ride.

Ikwe, (“woman” in Ojibwe) is intended to give Winnipeg’s women, especially Indigenous women, an alternative to frightening taxi rides.

A plague of sexual assaults

Cab drivers in Winnipeg in 2016 were notorious for their abuse of women passengers. All women were targets. Cabbies were always offering women “another way to pay.” Indigenous women most of all.

This scourge of abuse prompted the Southern Chiefs’ Organization to create the position of taxicab complaint community advocate. It made little difference.

Indigenous women continued to complain about harassment, rudeness, racial discrimination, and unwanted sexual advances at the hands of Winnipeg’s cabbies.

A simple self-help option

Anishinaabe artist and community activist Jackie Traverse had a better idea: mutual aid; give women a way to help themselves. Do that by creating a dedicated Facebook page to connect women who needed a ride with women who had a vehicle and some spare time to pick them up. She founded Ikwe Safe Rides in 2016.

Within the first few days of the launch, about a dozen women volunteered to be Ikwe drivers. After four months, more than ten thousand women had registered as members.

Ikwe now boasts more than eighteen thousand members. Nearly a third of Winnipeg’s Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis women have signed on, making up 80 per cent of Ikwe’s total membership.

By the summer of 2019, Ikwe’s fifty-four volunteer drivers had given more than seventy-five thousand rides.

Christine Brouzes signed on as one of Ikwe’s first drivers. Now she is Ikwe’s co-director. One of her responsibilities is check out prospective members.

In order to join the Ikwe community and book rides, potential members must first issue a formal request to Ikwe’s Facebook group. Members must be at least eighteen years old and identify as female.

“Then we look at their Facebook profile and snoop a little bit,” Christine said. “We snoop a lot, actually.”

Request a ride

If an approved member needs a ride, she’ll post a request on the Ikwe Facebook page with information about her current location, destination, the time she needs picking up, and number of other passengers.

Ikwe allows men to accompany female members. Women ride with their sons, husbands, and boyfriends all the time—Ikwe is a popular service for Winnipeg date nights—but men can never outnumber women in an Ikwe vehicle.

Members also indicate how much they’re willing to pay for the ride.

Ikwe operates as a registered charity rather than a taxi company, and cannot legally charge fares. Instead, Ikwe encourages members to make a donation to the driver. Their Facebook page recommends donations comparable to city taxi fares, or a little less.

If a member cannot afford to pay at all, Ikwe’s drivers usually give these women rides nevertheless. And drivers never expect donations for emergency rides, such as trips to the hospital for non-life-threatening medical problems or women in labour.

Spreading kindness

Christine recalls picking up a member who was in labour. Christine brought her to the hospital, walked her into the emergency room, and helped her check in.

“It’s the kindness we want to give,” she said.

Ikwe’s drivers have driven twenty-one pregnant women to their deliveries, so far.

“I quickly realized that Ikwe was about spreading kindness. Being good to each other. And being helpful,” Christine said.

“Our members just want to get to where they are going. I can do that.”

The above is based on an excerpt from the book Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers by Marcello Di Cin


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