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Canada Transit agencies say they’ll improve tracking of sexual violence

Several transit agencies across Canada say they are changing how sexual violence and harassment are tracked on their systems, after revelations of pervasive data gaps reported by The Globe and Mail.

Among those planning reforms such as expanding the scope of incidents tracked and updating record systems are the Toronto Transit Commission, Calgary Transit and Metrolinx, which serves the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. Saskatoon Transit, meanwhile, which was not collecting data on sexual assault, has started doing so since The Globe first contacted the agency about the issue, and is considering also tracking sexual harassment.

The changes come in the wake of a Globe investigation that found nearly 4,000 incidents of a sexual nature were recorded on Canada’s 22 largest transit systems between 2013 and 2017. But the findings, pieced together through Freedom of Information requests, also revealed systemic issues with how the information was collected and which sexual incidents were counted that obscure the true extent of the problem.

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Thousands of Canadian transit passengers target of sexual violence between 2013 and 2017, Globe analysis finds

In many cases, attacks at bus stops were not included because the stops are not considered transit property by some systems. Sexual harassment was often missed because many transit agencies only collect data on criminal offences. In some instances, passengers reported sexual incidents to staff, but were not directed to make an official report.

The Globe’s investigation also found reported incidents missing from the data because of errors or misclassifications by the police or transit systems, including in Calgary.

It “requires a real hard look at yourself,” said Brian Whitelaw, superintendent of Calgary Transit public safety and enforcement, of the data gaps. “I’m genuinely interested in what are we missing.”

Adoncia Cayouette was violently attacked in 2016 while waiting for a bus in Calgary.

Todd Korol/for The Globe and Mail

One of the incidents missing from Calgary Transit’s sexual-violence data was the 2016 sexual assault of Adoncia Cayouette, then 19, who was attacked while waiting for a bus. Mr. Whitelaw used to live in the neighbourhood where the assault happened, and said he drives past the bus stop regularly and asks himself how it could have been prevented.

Immediately after the attack, Ms. Cayouette’s mother asked Calgary Transit to improve visibility of the shelter, to put in an emergency button and to install video surveillance. Her requests were originally rejected by the agency because transit officials determined that they would not significantly improve safety at the stop.

Ms. Cayouette’s case was featured in The Globe’s investigation, published earlier this month. Mr. Whitelaw says he has reopened discussions about improving safety measures at that bus stop and is exploring the possibility of installing video cameras.

Calgary Transit will also be reviewing its data-collection methods, Mr. Whitelaw says, and it intends to begin tracking sexual harassment, which includes incidents such as leering and inappropriate comments about women’s bodies. Such incidents were not previously included in the agency’s statistics.

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The Toronto Transit Commission has been reviewing its data-collection methods, as well. TTC spokesman Stuart Green said the transportation service expects to have a new records-management system in place by the fall that will allow for improved search and analytical capabilities. It will also allow the TTC to incorporate incidents of sexual harassment reported from the SafeTTC app into their data.

Anne Marie Aikins, senior manager of media and issues at Metrolinx, said the transit agency has also been working to improve its collection of data, saying it has started breaking down incidents by gender and collecting statistics on hate crimes.

Of the 22 transportation systems examined by The Globe, Saskatoon Transit was the only system that did not collect data specifically on sexual assault. The transit agency updated its collection methods in 2019 to start keeping statistics on sexual assault.

Jim McDonald, director of Saskatoon Transit, said the information will help the system determine where they need to make changes. He added that reporting is key: “I can't do anything if people don't tell me there's something going on.” He said the system is also looking at the possibility of tracking sexual harassment.

While transit agencies in Saskatoon, Calgary and the Toronto area are examining reforms, others told The Globe they believe their tracking measures are sound.

The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) does not keep its own data on sexual misconduct and instead relies on the police for its statistics. STM spokewoman Amélie Régis says there are no plans to change this system, but stated “reducing sexual assault and harassment on public transit is a key issue for the STM.”

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When transit systems rely solely on police data, they miss counting most incidents of sexual harassment because they are not considered offences under the Criminal Code, according to sexual-assault statistics expert and former University of Ottawa professor Holly Johnson.

Christine Harminc, communications manager for the Canadian Urban Transit Association, said the organization will continue to work with their members, Canada’s transit systems, to improve safety for women. She said while the issue of data gaps has been discussed within the organization, as of yet there are no firm plans to advise their members on improving the tracking and collection of data on sexual violence.

Across the country, some of the most serious incidents of sexual assault associated with public transit have happened at bus stops. But understanding the scale of the problem is difficult in Canada because the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey collected by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics combines crimes on buses and at bus shelters into one location code.

Yvan Clermont, director for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, says the centre will be consulting police partners this fall on the possibility of refining the location categories to distinguish between crimes on transit and those that occur at bus stations and stops.

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