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Ontario Is Trying to Make Working in Restaurants Less Shitty for Women

The province is introducing sexual harassment training, but one of the industry's most vocal critics says change has to start from within.

Photo via Flickr user Dolapo Falola

It's a critical first-step in addressing a male-dominated industry that's come under fire for sexism and harassment in the last couple years—but one of the industry's best-known critics says the training won't do shit unless the people within the business want to change.

This week, Ontario announced it would spend $1.7 million over three years to train everyone from owners and managers to servers and bartenders in recognizing and challenging harassment when they see it. Organizations in the hospitality sector along with violence-prevention experts will design the training, according to the province's Women's Issues Minister Tracy MacCharles. "After this training, workers in the hospitality sector will know how to intervene safely and where to go for help when they need it," MacCharles said. It's unclear whether the training will be mandatory for all restaurants, or whether they will have to opt in. The announcement comes more than a year after a human rights complaint by Toronto chef Kate Burnham against Weslodge restaurant triggered a panel event organized by restaurant owner Jen Agg that promoted real talk on the subject. While the majority of Ontario's 450,000 servers are women, the industry is dominated by male owners and managers. And Ontario, along with Canada's largest city, Toronto, have only just begun to confront this infamously toxic kitchen culture. "My first thought was, wow, that doesn't really seem like a lot of money," Agg told VICE News over the phone Thursday. "It's a good first step." "Of course government mandates are good first steps, and even if it seems that this thing might be hard to enforce or it's not perfect, a lot of the ways that we get better as a culture are really imperfect first steps," she continued. Agg can't predict whether the training will work or not, but says it will only make a difference if individual restaurants and the people working in them want to change. "It's really hard to say. That's sort of like saying, how effective do you think anger management training is? It really depends on the individual, it depends on the people, it depends on the willingness to change," she said. "It's a really hard question to answer. Honestly, I don't know." The restaurant industry exists within a broader patriarchal rape culture, Agg explained, and while that outside culture tacitly approves sexist behaviour, the inner culture of restaurants is actively approving that behaviour. Speaking on the announcement, Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said the training would "empower" workers in the industry to speak up, the Canadian Press reported. "Maybe it's just reporting it to the boss or the supervisor," he said. "Maybe it's stepping in. Maybe it's saying something across the bar to somebody, just tell them: 'Look, that's pretty inappropriate. You want to stop that.'" But Agg tells VICE one of the things people don't realize if they don't work in the industry is, "just how hard it is to go against your superiors in this business." One of the issues with training staff to report harassment is that often, they must report to management, and in some cases those managers are the ones responsible for the harassment. "In terms of not following the cultural lead, it can ostracize you in a way that can maybe lead to fewer shifts, or maybe the chef picks on you, or maybe you're fired, so you really learn very quickly that if you want to fit in, then you laugh at the jokes that maybe are a little bit off-colour—and not in a fun way." Agg has heard critics say she's trying to take the fun out of the business—but she's not. "I think you can have a lot of fun and joke around and say terrible things with your staff that are not directed to humiliate somebody for their race or culture or sex. It's just about being not a fucking idiot about it." Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.