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Opinion Time’s up for public-transit assaults, too – and the federal government has to do better

John Di Nino is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada, the largest Transit Union in Canada with more than 34,000 members in public transit and over-the-road buses.

The story reported by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday highlights a disturbing reality: Each and every day, women on our transit systems are being harassed and violated by sexually-aggressive men. The details contained in the story are repulsive.

Traumatized passengers disclose their stories to transit professionals, who then process these awful occurrences. According to The Globe, transit workers’ reports of these assaults often go down a rabbit hole; they are being inappropriately reported as a “general occurrence” in the system, rendering the true nature of the problem invisible.

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Transit agencies need to name sexual assault or crimes of a sexual nature. Transit agencies must be held accountable for reporting gender-based sexual violence. In the transit world, time’s up.

That is why the Amalgamated Transit Union in Canada is calling for a version of the Transit Worker and Pedestrian Protection Act, a legislative proposal in the United States, as transit workers struggle every day to deal with physical violence against operators, blind spots on the buses that threaten pedestrians, and to come up with preventative measures to end sexual violence in all forms.

In Canada, the federal government should not abdicate its responsibility regarding the safety and security of passengers, operators and maintenance staff.

By bringing this type of bill to Ottawa, a national study could be undertaken, through the Senate or parliamentary committee, such as the kind The Globe reports is lacking in our country. No national study of passenger safety has ever been done. Such a study could create a reliable and accurate national database of statistics to document crimes against passenger and operator safety. Again, no such database currently exists. With a national law, a national study and a national database, we can begin to mobilize all necessary resources to reducing the thousands of incidents that are occurring on the bus, in the stations and in the workplace.

What is making the problem intractably worse is that many premiers are cutting funding to public transit, particularly on the operational side, meaning fewer trained staff who can come to a pedestrian’s aid or make space more secure simply by being present. The move to automated buses and fare collection, the cuts to transit, the cost-cutting measures being put in place by transit authorities are a huge part of the problem. How can we possibly make spaces safer if provinces are cutting the funding for staff? We can’t; it’s that simple.

That is why, in addition to a dedicated safety bill monitored by the federal government, we need Ottawa to implement a national transit strategy that guarantees dedicated operational funding in order to reduce waiting times, increase the number and presence of trained staff and get people from A to B safely. Currently, the federal government provides money for capital through the Canada Infrastructure Bank. This money gets translated into new stations. But how can we guarantee these new stations do not become breeding grounds for sexual violence, if women are waiting hours for a bus or there are no employees in sight?

The status quo is unacceptable and the only path forward must start with political leadership in Ottawa. Transit professionals in the ATU will press all parties in the 2019 election and beyond for justice for victims and an end to gender-based violence on our transit systems.

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