Posted on July 18, 2005

Cab Trainer Blasted For ‘Insensitive’ Remarks

Zev Singer, Ottawa Citizen, July 14

An Ottawa police detective who gives sexual harassment sensitivity training to taxi drivers could use some lessons herself, according to a chorus of voices yesterday who say the officer made remarks that were culturally insensitive.

In an interview published yesterday in the Citizen, Det. Theresa Kelm said part of the function of the training course was to explain to drivers what constituted acceptable behaviour toward women in Canada and what types of actions or remarks crossed the line into harassment or assault.

“Some of this behaviour may be acceptable in the countries they are from,” Det. Kelm said. “Our message to them is that it’s not acceptable here, and it won’t be tolerated.”

The comment was made in a story about a cab driver who was convicted of sexually assaulting a female passenger, the third of its kind in the Ottawa area in the past year.

Yousef Al Mezel, president of the union that represents Ottawa taxi drivers, said the detective’s remark was unfair to drivers. “It’s a racist comment from the detective,” he said.

The comment implied Canadian culture was superior to that of other countries in terms of attitude toward women, said Mr. Al Mezel.

“It’s not allowed in Canada. It’s not allowed in other countries,” said Mr. Al Mezel, who came to Canada from Kuwait 18 years ago.

Ottawa Councillor Eli El-Chantiri, who sits on the city’s taxi advisory committee, agreed with the union leader.

Mr. El-Chantiri, who came to Canada from Lebanon 30 years ago, said he has never heard of any culture in which it is “acceptable” to treat women “like a piece of meat.” He said that when he was a boy, the message was the opposite.

“That’s the way we were brought up, to respect the elderly and the female.”

Yesterday, police Staff Sgt. Monique Ackland said the idea that in some countries disrespect of women is acceptable “does not reflect the views of the Ottawa Police Service. . . Any unwanted words or actions are inappropriate, no matter who you are, and this is taken very seriously by the Ottawa Police Service.”

Meanwhile, when Canada’s Foreign Affairs website offers advice to female travellers, it warns Middle Eastern countries can be a particular hazard.

“Unescorted women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse,” the website says in the travel report on Egypt. “Physical and verbal harassment of women is a problem,” the report adds about Kuwait.

Foreign affairs also publishes a travel guide for women, called Her Own Way, which explains “female travellers are directly affected by the religious and societal beliefs of the countries they visit.”

It says that in some countries — although it does not spell out which — a differentiation is made by men between women who dress or behave conservatively and those who don’t.

“Understand that, in some parts of the world, ‘respectable’ women don’t go out alone in the evening. In these places, a flagrant rejection of this custom could very well put you in jeopardy.”

Andre Lemay, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs, said the department isn’t looking to offend anyone, but sometimes there is a “reality” that needs to be explained.

“Our job is to protect Canadians,” he said.