Ontario adds sexual violence prevention to mandatory training for those who serve alcohol

Ontario’s mandatory training program for those who sell, serve, deliver or handle alcohol will soon include training on how to recognize and respond to sexual violence in a bar or restaurant setting.

In a news release, Smart Serve Ontario said it’s announcing the launch of a new learning module Friday.

“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,” the statement reads.

Smart Serve Ontario declined to share more details with CBC News in advance of the announcement, but it said more information will be unveiled at an event at an Etobicoke restaurant on Friday morning.

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.

A student at an in-person Smart Serve Class in Windsor, Ont. from 2019. The program helps ensure those who serve and handle alcohol do so responsibly. (CBC)

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.

In Smart Serve Ontario’s media advisory, it touted the important roles servers play.

“The link between establishments that serve alcohol and the risk of sexual violence cannot be ignored.”

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.

Farrah Khan has been pushing for the mandatory Smart Serve training to include education on sexual violence recognition and prevention since 2015. While she welcomes the move to introduce it now, she wonders what took so long. (Grant Linton/CBC News)

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.

No one from Smart Serve Ontario was available to comment ahead of Friday’s announcement to answer why the program wasn’t implemented earlier, what the program will specifically entail, and whether it will include training that helps servers recognize sexual violence against fellow staff members. The agency said more details will be unveiled at Friday’s announcement.

Ontario’s Attorney General Doug Downey — who according to Smart Serve’s release is slated to be at Friday’s announcement — did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.

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.”

Brigitte de Man, a Toronto server who has worked in the hospitality industry for nine years, believes the news Smart Serve training module will help young servers entering the industry for the first time. (Farrah Meralil/CBC)

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.” 

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