Ontario's mandatory training program for those who sell, serve, deliver or handle alcohol now includes training on how to recognize and respond to sexual violence in a bar or restaurant setting.
Smart Serve Ontario officially launched the new module Friday at an event in Etobicoke, but it said it already started rolling out the training in late spring.
"Recognized as the first line of defence within a variety of establishments, bartenders and servers are critical in the protection and wellbeing of patrons against sexual violence," Smart Serve said in a statement.
While servers and advocates for sexual assault survivors are applauding the move, some are wondering what took so long. Since 2015, they say they've been pushing for the Smart Serve program to include training on sexual violence, and that many incidents could have been prevented had it been brought in sooner.
Smart Serve Ontario offers in-person and online training for servers working where alcohol is sold. It's approved by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and is mandatory for those serving alcohol in the province. The training includes a final certification test.
"Sexual violence can occur in bars, restaurants, public parks, walking trails, frankly anywhere. It's time we took collective action to protect people from sexual and gender based violence," said Richard Anderson, Smart Serve Ontario's executive director.
"This module will educate and empower our hospitality staff to take measures to understand and interject while keeping their own safety top of mind."
According to Smart Serve, 70,000 people have already completed the program with the module on recognizing sexual violence since it came out in the spring. Anderson said those who already have the certification aren't required to take the course again with the new module.
Activist 'disappointed that it took so long'
"I feel happy that it's happening, but disappointed that it took so long," said Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First at Ryerson University's Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education.
Khan said in her role as co-chair of Ontario's provincial roundtable on violence against women from 2015 to 2018, she and others pushed the province to embed training on recognizing and responding to sexual violence in Smart Serve.
"We wanted the recognition that oftentimes in situations, people can use alcohol to rationalize the harm that they're going to commit, and it can elevate their ability to feel like they can get away with it in their entitlement to other people's bodies," said Khan.
Khan said she's now eager to learn more details about the program — how comprehensive it is, and whether it includes education on how to respond to sexual violence against staff members too.
"A training like this really needs to not only talk about the sexual violence patrons can can be subjected to, but also with servers and how they're going to look out for each other, how they're going to check in and make sure that it's a safe space," she said.
"It is a win, but it's a delayed win and we could have prevented a lot more sexual violence if we had done it earlier."
In 2016, Toronto city council introduced a motion calling on the province and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to change the Smart Serve Ontario program to include measures on how to deal with sexual assault, harassment and violence.
When asked about why Smart Serve only moved to implement the new training this year, Anderson said the organization wanted to make sure they did it right.
"We wanted to make sure that it was the right amount of information. Those that take the program now can be three to four hours long. And we didn't want to make it onerous for our users. So that would be the journey to decide how much to put in it," said Anderson.
"And [it is] very much an introductory information to help people understand — feel comfortable with it, be able to talk about it at their place of employment."
Ontario's Attorney General Doug Downey was at Friday's event and said this project was in the works under his predecessor Caroline Mulroney .
"It's not just a couple of random questions or random pieces that they cover. So these things do take a little bit of time," Downey said.
Educating new servers
Toronto server Brigitte de Man said she welcomes Smart Serve's move to introduce the training program — especially now.
"COVID had a lot of people leaving. Most of the people are very inexperienced or very green and there's so many new people in the industry —young people who may not have the confidence or the wherewithal to defend themselves," said de Man, who has worked in the industry for almost a decade.
"And knowing that they're at least thinking about this stuff in terms of our industry and putting government policies into place regarding these issues — it feels nice to hear."
De Man said she too would welcome training on how to recognize sexual assault or violence against not just patrons but staff as well, but said she believes government could be doing much more to address some of the roots of sexual violence.
She said that includes comprehensive sexual education in school. The Ford government was the target of much criticism following its push to re-introduce an older version of the province' sex-ed program.
The new Smart Serve sexual violence training is "just the tip of the iceberg in terms of educating people about prevention. It's a very soft, introductory way to educate," de Man said.
"But it's still a good step."