This month, Toronto will host two awesome women-focused food events: The Dinner Party, hosted by The Drake, and Chatelaine’s The Big Dish, a day-long gathering featuring incredible female talent in the Canadian hospitality industry.
In recent years, women-focused groups and events for food- and drink-obsessives have been popping up across the country, including the Pink Boots Society (for lady beer lovers, with chapters in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto) and Women Who Whiskey (a women-only whiskey appreciation group with chapters in Toronto and Waterloo). And in 2015, Jen Agg, Toronto restaurateur and author of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, spearheaded an event called Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time in response to allegations of “rampant” and “unrelenting” sexual harassment and abuse at a trendy downtown Toronto restaurant.
While some of these initiatives address sexism and harassment head on, others are creating safe and inclusive places for women to celebrate passions that are traditionally male-dominated. But there’s still more work to be done.
Chatelaine’s sister publication, Flare, spoke to 10 diverse women in hospitality to learn more about their experiences with sexism and racism in bars and kitchens across Canada — and what they’re doing to help fellow female colleagues thrive. Their stories range from blatant examples of sexism to less overt instances, but they have one thing in common: these are all women who love their work and won’t let industry misogyny stop them.
“Being told that, because I had big tits, hair and an ass, it was my duty to sell myself to get tips, had a lasting effect on my sexual identity” — Viktoria Belle, co-founder of Dandelion Initiative in Toronto
Viktoria Belle started working as a bartender in Toronto at 19. Estranged from her family and fending for herself, she was forced to wear revealing clothing to appease male patrons.
“I was treated like an object and put on display for men, just so I could make money and pay rent.” The experience was especially difficult for Belle, who came out as a queer person at the age of 13.
“Being told that, because I had big tits, hair and an ass, it was my duty was to sell myself to get tips, had a lasting effect on my sexual identity,” she says. She felt suffocated and made to feel like her gayness was inherently wrong for almost a decade. “I thought, why fight it? It led me down a path of dating men for 10 years. It was a horrible way to exist.”
Belle eventually left the hospitality industry and now works in public policy. Two years ago, while walking home from her local bar, she was raped. It happened just a block from her house and the incident resurrected the trauma she dealt with as a young bartender.
“I realized all of these experiences are connected, so I started organizing Dandelion Initiative with a partner at the time.”
The Dandelion Initiative is a non-profit, community-led group that wants to put an end to sexual violence by spreading awareness and educating the industry.
One of the Initiative’s early campaigns involved getting Toronto’s College Street Bar’s liquor license revoked after its owner and one of its employees were charged with forcible confinement and sexual assault. Since then, the Initiative launched The Safe Bars Project, which aims to improve the culture at bars and restaurants across Ontario by providing anti-harassment training and helping develop policies to make them inclusive, safe spaces.
“We talk about holding bars accountable but we often forget these are young workers who may be survivors themselves, and they might not have tools to make them safe spaces,” she says. “This is about empowering them, not punishing them.”
The reception to The Safe Bars Project has been incredible, Belle says, and she credits establishments like The Drake Hotel for being early supporters and vocal advocates for the program.
More than a decade after she started working in the industry, Belle recognizes there is a lot of work to be done but is optimistic about Toronto’s bar scene.
“How lucky we are to have bars in the city that celebrate queerness and gayness and create safe spaces for young people to express themselves authentically? I didn’t have that and I’m so proud and grateful that exists for other people,” Belle says. “We get into jobs especially in bars and restaurants, to get us through school. The idea that we have to be attractive to men is so harmful. How do you transform that history of treatment of people? We start by changing education.”