Being a taxi driver is no easy job, and it’s certainly not a route to getting rich.
How often have you struck up conversations with cabbies only to learn that they have a second or third job to support their families? It seems quite common.
The pandemic has only exacerbated matters. Mohamad Ali, an owner of Aurora Taxi, estimated that the number of cabbies in Yellowknife has fallen by 40 per cent since COVID-19 seriously diminished demand for rides: fewer tourists, fewer business travellers, fewer parents needing to get their children to school, fewer people leaving movies and bars.
It’s a bad scene.
Ali figures many of the drivers who abandoned the occupation were on reduced hours and reduced incomes; therefore, giving up what little work was left and collecting government aid became a more feasible option.
Before going any further, let’s acknowledge that there are some bad apples within the mix. The Status of Women Council of the NWT launched a taxi safety survey earlier this year following far too many complaints from women in this city who faced sexual harassment as passengers in taxis.
Any cab drivers guilty of such offences need appropriate training, to be fired or to be hauled before the justice system, as warranted.
On the other hand, there are numerous hard-working and upstanding cabbies who are just trying to make an honest living. In their course of duties, they sometimes encounter drunken and belligerent customers. There may be vomit left in their vehicles. There are robberies. There are assaults against them. In January 2020, Elias Schiller, then 19 years old, was sentenced to four years in prison for the beating death of City Cab driver Ahmed Mahamud Ali.
It can be a high-risk job.
Many of us rely on taxi drivers. Yellowknife is a city where the bus system has never really been popular. The city’s fleet of approximately 200 cabs provides an integral service, one that we often take for granted and are quick to curse if we’re left waiting several minutes longer than expected for a pick up.
The onset of the pandemic’s effects in March 2020 not only devastated scores of cabbies’ livelihoods, it turned those still behind the wheel into de facto essential workers: transporting potentially COVID-infected passengers from place to place, never knowing when they might be exposed to the virus. Despite the added hazard, cab drivers never saw a financial reward, no “hero pay.”
Despite the hardships, the cab companies still had to pay their fees to the City of Yellowknife.
The taxi businesses did get an eight-month reprieve from the Government of the Northwest Territories for airport taxi stand fees. However, that ended in January when the $1,250 monthly charges resumed for all three of the city’s taxi businesses.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly has taken his own stand – on behalf of cab companies – urging the GNWT to reduce or prorate those airport fees, which entitle cabs to designated spaces in front of the airport so they can swoop in to accommodate customers.
But, again, there are fewer customers since COVID, even if statistics show a modest rebound lately.
On May 28, Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie responded to O’Reilly’s plea by pledging a written response within two weeks.
The fees bring in $45,000 per year for the territorial government. That is a drop in the bucket out of the airport budget. The money would be much more meaningful to cab companies, who continue to struggle.
The right thing for Archie to do would be to reverse course and park the airport taxi stand charges until the NWT economy is once again in overdrive.