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Valentine's Day contest scrapped by Halifax Transit following public outcry


HALIFAX — A public backlash has forced the Halifax Transit authority to scrap plans for a Valentine's Day contest it called "Love in Transit."

When the municipal agency asked the public to share stories of love on the city's buses and ferries, many responded with disturbing accounts of verbal, physical and sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

The online reaction included stories from women describing how they felt trapped when approached by threatening people while on buses or at ferry terminals or bus stops. 

One woman tweeted: "Like the time I had a strange man harass me, pass me his phone number and follow me off my stop so I had to change the times I took the bus for weeks so he wouldn’t know where I lived? That was so romantic."

Others online were more blunt. 

"Worst. Marketing. Ever," read another post on Twitter. 

And there were plenty of messages suggesting the transit authority had simply lost touch with its riders.

"I don't think their (communications) staff have taken the bus," one critic said. "It’s not an NYC rom com, I'll tell ya that." 

The contest, which promised to award winners $50 gift cards for dining out, was widely panned as insensitive and tone deaf.

"Have people met and fallen in love while riding transit? Undoubtedly," one online post said. "Have way more women been harassed and assaulted. Definitely. And your contest gives tacit approval to the creeps out there. Ditch the contest." 

Halifax Transit pulled the campaign Wednesday and issued an apology, saying any passengers experiencing abusive behaviour should contact police. As well, the authority said it has zero tolerance for all forms of harassment and violence.

The original intent of the contest was to share positive stories to "lift passengers' spirits," but the agency said in a statement it recognized many people had taken offence to the contest.

Dee Dooley, a spokeswoman for the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, said she was pleased to see community members speaking up about a sensitive subject and generating positive change.

"Most progressive change comes when a collective of people advocate for that change and really fight for it," Dooley, who co-ordinates the centre's community and legal education program, said in an interview Friday.

"If feels like the community came together to really say, 'Enough is enough. We don't want to accept that sexualized violence is a normal, everyday occurrence. And that happened across the gender spectrum."

Dooley, whose work focuses on gender-based violence prevention, said she can appreciate the goodwill behind collecting "love connection" stories, but she said the transit authority should have been more sensitive to the fact that public transit can be a very unsafe public space.

"The public backlash proves the point that the intention and the impact of the contest were not in line ... The intention was not how it landed in the community."

The contest, however, was defended by some transit users. 

"Maybe I'm missing something, but why do you need to apologize for running a contest focusing on love connections made on transit?" one Twitter user said. "I didn't see you guys ask for harassment stories. Keyboard warriors always changing the conversation!" 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2021. 

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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