Investigation • How data gaps obscure the sex-assault problem in public transit
Canada’s three largest transit systems have fielded dozens of complaints of sexual misconduct by transit staff against passengers since 2013, including allegations in Toronto of harassment of underage girls.
Data obtained by The Globe and Mail through Freedom of Information requests show that since 2013 there have been at least 83 complaints of sexual misconduct made against Toronto Transit Commission staff. Vancouver and Montreal have recorded 34 and 14 such complaints, respectively, during the same period.
Complaints made to the TTC offer a window into the breadth of the alleged sexual misconduct and harassment, from staff catcalling passengers to imitating oral sex, inappropriately touching women, asking them about their sex lives, commenting on their bodies and making homophobic slurs.
One woman complained that a driver told her he would like to cover her with body paint and lick it off. Another alleged that while buying tokens, the ticket collector said to her: “You only want to ride me seven times?”
“The amount of harassment I, as a woman, face on the TTC is already much higher than just on the street. It is terrible. To have an employee of the service I pay for harass me, and sexualize me is plain disgusting,” a Toronto transit rider wrote.
Another passenger said: “I am writing a complaint about the jokes your staff make about gay people. Too many times have I wrote/called in complaining about the rude jokes your staff make, on the 22A. Yes, I'm a homosexual and I do not need your staff to remind me every time I step on or off the bus. I do not understand why in a city so diverse as Toronto gays still experience discrimination from a ‘corporation’ who preaches tolerance.”
Several disturbing complaints involved minors. In 2017, one mother alleged a Toronto bus driver told her 12-year-old daughter, “I’ll fuck up that ass” as she exited the bus.
In January, 2018, another mother wrote that her 16-year-old daughter was catcalled on various occasions by the same driver who made motions to expose his genitalia to her. The report said the driver threatened to kill the girl if she spoke out about the harassment.
TTC spokesman Stuart Green declined to comment on specific incidents, but said the transit agency takes all reports of inappropriate behaviour seriously. While the TTC does not specifically track passenger complaints involving sexual misconduct by staff, Mr. Green said over all, 421 complaints were levelled against staff between 2014 and 2016 regarding issues of personal harassment, unprofessional conduct and discrimination based on sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.
“In cases where an employee is found to have committed any such act, they would be disciplined accordingly,” he said. Disciplinary action can include suspensions without pay, counselling and sensitivity training.
Philippe Déry of Montreal’s Société de transport de Montréal (STM) said allegations of sexual misconduct by staff are “extremely rare.” When they occur, he said, the transit agency conducts an investigation and takes action, if necessary. He added that staff receive continuing training on respect and harassment.
Jill Drews, senior issues management adviser with Vancouver’s TransLink, said 13 of the 34 complaints against staff were substantiated and police were involved in two cases. The 13 incidents resulted in some form of discipline, ranging from formal notes on employees’ files to loss of employment.
The Globe spoke with two women who had complained about harassment by transit staff. Both felt uncomfortable using their last names.
Katie said she was sexually harassed by two different streetcar drivers in Toronto in 2016 and 2018 and submitted complaints to the TTC each time. Her first complaint related to an incident in which she says the driver made a comment to her boyfriend implying that she was a prostitute. And in 2018, while on an almost empty bus, another driver came on the loudspeaker to discuss her appearance publicly with the only other male passenger on the bus.
The experiences were demeaning, she said, and have eroded her trust in the transit system.
“When you think about harassment on the TTC, or any sort of issue at all, you are always told, ‘Let the driver know, go to them for help.’ So when it’s the driver themself making you uncomfortable, who do you turn to?"
In 2014, Prineet was new to Vancouver and asked a driver where to get off of the bus she was taking. She said he put his hand on her shoulder, leaned close to her ear and whispered something she remembers as “polite ladies shouldn’t say things like ‘Get off’ to men like him.”
She made a complaint to TransLink, but didn’t pursue it further because she says she felt it wasn’t worth her mental energy.