A night's escort duty on the Pine-Park interchange

May 30, 1997

It was a mild spring night and Karen Pelley, Chantal Maynard and I were wearing bright red Walksafe jackets as we patrolled through a square-mile zone on a four-hour Friday shift. One of the two dispatchers radioed our team, one of three on call that night, to meet a "walk" at a Pine Avenue apartment, in the northern area of the McGill ghetto.

The woman, a quiet and polite person, looked down a lot as we walked her a few blocks to the campus. It is understood that volunteers do not ask anyone why they use the service.

"If it makes people feel better to walk with us then that's great. That's what we're here for," said Ms Maynard who, in common with her colleagues, will walk "anyone, anywhere", even if it means spending the whole shift doing it.

Founded in 1992 after a rash of sexual assaults hit the area surrounding the university, the McGill Walksafe Network is a free service open to the public and is one of 32 university and college-run programmes in Canada. "Walkers" will mostly walk but will also ride on a bus or hop in a taxi. The volunteer staff will not ask any other questions apart from finding out the addresses for the starting and destination points.

Crime has gone down in the ghetto since the service started. A week earlier, a team spotted a broken car window and phoned dispatch, who alerted the police. To our north was Mount Royal, which holds several Montreal communities and, at its foot, a McGill residence. Between the university and the mountain is the Pine-Park interchange, an ugly structure of criss-crossing highways. For many students in residence on their way to clubs and bars on Boulevard St Laurent, the interchange is an alienated urban jungle of dark curved walls and narrow sidewalks.

"I'm surprised nobody has been murdered there," said Ms Pelley, who every night dreads taking her own route from campus to another residence. It only takes a minute to run past and arrive at the bustling University Avenue but the desolate concrete area, in the shadow of McGill's engineering buildings, has a number of potential lurking spots. Although Ms Pelley has always made it to the front door without incident, she says going through that area is "scary".

For the women, both aged 19 and living away from home for the first time, the Walksafe programme has been reassuring. Chantal Maynard is from a small town in Manitoba, population 800. Montreal, to her, had too many strangers.

For Ms Pelley, who hails from a city with some high crime statistics, Walksafe provides insurance. "I had friends who were assaulted. It's not that I think it will happen to me but why take a risk?" The two women do not mind the occasional taunts at the group's sense of righteousness nor are they bothered by the occasional cat-calls of "Walk me home, Baby". Instead, by 2:45am, they and their colleagues were satisfied that, once again, those who were scared to walk a scary route felt safe.

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