Skip to main content

Co-founder of the city’s Sexual Assault Action Coalition, Viktoria Belle turns to hug a supporter after placing a paper heart on the window at the College Street Bar during a demonstration. The protest emerged in response to sexual-assault allegations being levelled against the bar’s owner, as well as one employee.Paul Salvatori/The Globe and Mail

On the night before Christmas Eve, a cluster of protesters gathered outside College Street Bar after its owner and an employee were accused of sexual assault. They fastened heart-shaped notes to the front window ("We are with you," one read. "End rape culture," another said) and demanded the popular bar shut its doors while police investigated.

A handwritten "Currently closed" sign now sits taped to the bar's front door. The public outcry to combat long-rampant harassment and violence in the city's nightlife scene has only intensified, with insiders and patrons working together on various awareness campaigns.

"That incident hit home for a lot of people," says Evelyn Chick, bar manager at Pretty Ugly in Parkdale. "We definitely have a long way to go. [Harassment and assault] happen in bars all the time."

In a culture often criticized for being flippant toward abuse – from a 2015 sexual-harassment lawsuit against King Street West's Westlodge restaurant to La Carnita's Donald Trump-inspired "grab her by the taco" Instagram joke last October – forcing establishments to acknowledge there's a systemic issue, let alone find a remedy, is no easy task.

Last fall, the owners of the Painted Lady faced swift backlash for their handling of an attempted assault at the Ossington bar. When two female patrons suspected a man had drugged their drinks, they reported it to the bouncer. After denying the allegation, the man was allowed to remain. The incident quickly made its way to social media, prompting the owners to release a statement defending their staff and suggesting patrons should learn how to protect themselves. After days of steady criticism, they recalibrated their position and apologized for suggesting victims are ever to blame for sexual violence. A sign now hangs in the Painted Lady's window, warning consequences for anyone who "enter[s] these premises with the intent of drugging unsuspecting patrons …"

In December, College Street Bar owner, Gavin MacMillan, and an employee, Enzo De Jesus Carrasco, were charged for the alleged sexual assault of a 24-year-old woman. The charges were later upgraded to include gang sexual assault, forcible confinement and drug trafficking. The bar is "voluntarily closed" until at least May under conditions approved by the city's licensing committee.

In the wake of the charges, Ms. Chick, a member of Bartenders Against Sexual Harassment (BASH), helped organize a fundraiser for the Dandelion Project, a budding initiative that aims to produce Canada-wide anti-sexual-assault training and protocol for bars and restaurants. The project is led by the year-old Sexual Assault Action Coalition, founded by long-time industry employees Jenna Davies and Viktoria Belle.

"People are holding each other more accountable, which is the first big change, and people are actually looking for educational tools," Ms. Belle says. "… But to really be an advocate you have to understand the community. Sexual assault and violence are still very taboo."

The project is similar to another Toronto-born initiative, known as NASA (Noise Against Sexual Assault), which concentrates primarily on music venues. NASA distributes posters for venues to display to declare a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault, as well as homophobia, racism and transphobia. "It's up to communities to start building conversations and trust within themselves," artist and co-founder Kristel Jax said. "The problem is immediate."

In 2015, NASA worked with Kensington Market venue Double Double Land to overhaul its safety strategy after a violent assault. The venue now has panic buttons in the washrooms and redesigned doors so that the area is partly visible from outside. "We want people to know that if they report something it will be dealt with appropriately and that the perpetrator isn't the one whose side will be taken, which has been an issue in this city," Ms. Jax said.

The Drake One Fifty has launched an internal review of how its staff handled an alleged assault last month. In a social-media post, a customer said she was grabbed by a man while exiting the washroom. When she reported the incident, she said a member of the Drake's security team told her the assault "couldn't have happened" based on her description. Another, she said, told her it "[wasn't] that big a deal." She was then told to confront the attacker herself.

Shivani Marx, the Drake's chief operating officer, said the restaurant has "long had policies and training in place to respond to abusive behaviour. That said, clearly the handling of this complaint has identified some gaps in our protocol …" Ms. Marx said she has sought counsel from the Sexual Assault Action Coalition. The Drake has also agreed to participate in the Dandelion Project when it launches.

In a 2014 study conducted by CAMH senior scientist Dr. Kate Graham, half of female respondents reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, unwanted persistence or both during an evening out. (The same study found that 90 per cent of the targets of harassment were female.) In just 21 per cent of these cases, a third party intervened, including instances where it was an accomplice to the harasser. A correlation was identified between the target's level of intoxication and the harasser's level of invasiveness, indicating that visibly intoxicated women were targeted specifically.

"As bartenders we need to recognize when someone is in need of help," Parts & Labour general manager Chantelle Gabino said. Ms. Gabino also helped organize the BASH event. "You can generally tell from someone's face."

"The problem is alive and it is extremely real," said Jamal Severin-Watson, co-owner of Dundas West bar Unlovable, along with several other west-end establishments. "We're taught not to judge anybody when they walk through the door. But I'd rather be wrong than not say anything and later find out my instincts were true."

He believes that preventative skills, such as the ability to read patrons' body language, need to be improved across the industry by training staff proactively. "If someone comes up to me and says, 'I'm being harassed,' I'm too late," he said. "I would like to get to them before that point."

A 2016 study conducted by the University of Georgia found people generally don't see non-consensual sexual contact in bars as aggressive. "The near unanimity of this reaction is revealing of the extent to which people fail to see men grabbing, groping and forcing their bodies onto women as aggression when it occurs in barrooms," the study's conclusion reads.

With awareness mounting, bars are adopting sly measures to protect patrons. In November, the Lincolnshire Rape Crisis centre, in Lincolnshire, England hung posters in local bars instructing patrons to "Ask for Angela," a code indicating a need for help. A similar campaign in St. Petersburg, Fla., asked patrons to order an "angel shot" if they needed help leaving the bar safely. (If they asked for a lime, police would be called.)

In Toronto, a collective called Aisle 4 recently asked artists to design coasters with pro-consent messaging, then distributed the coasters to local bars. "We'd been talking about how art could be a positive way to advocate for personal safety," said Aisle 4's Shannon Linde. "The more you talk about it, the more people become aware of what a woman's experience is like, and therefore advocate for change at a long-term level."

While these local initiatives are gaining traction, it's critical that the government steps forward with legislation and mandatory training, Ms. Belle said.

"You can't put all the onus on people themselves … This is why we pay taxes and appoint political leaders. Currently they are failing us."

In March, 2015, the Ontario government announced it would allot $1.7-million to develop training for hospitality staff on how to intervene in cases of sexual violence or harassment. The material is currently being developed in conjunction with the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association and Tourism HR Canada and set to be launched in the fall. However, the program will be online and optional, which critics worry will limit participation.

Ultimately, for change to occur, people have to want it to. This means first believing the problem exists, and then taking sexual assault seriously.

When Ms. Jax approached venues she believes would benefit from a NASA poster, several turned her down. Likewise, Ms. Linde says only about half the bars she contacted responded enthusiastically to the coaster project. The other half required convincing, declined or did not respond at all. And when it comes to taking care of problems on site right away, Mr. Severin-Watson said, even bars that take incidents seriously do not have the capacity to enlighten instigators, only to eject them.

"In those cases I don't have time to educate them on why their behaviour is wrong. I just need their behaviour to stop."