How Canada’s housing crisis is fueling violence in our transit systems

Transit union president John Di Nino sees a link between rising violence and deteriorating societal conditions across Canada (Photo by Getty Images. Illustration by Maclean’s.)

I started my transit career at the age of 19, in 1986. I mostly worked as a mechanic in Toronto subway stations, away from the public, so I didn’t have to worry of my own safety at work. bus drivers and train operators sometimes do. That same year, I became a shop steward with the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents over 200,000 members working in transit systems in Canada and the United States. In 2018, I ran for president of the union, hoping to put to good use what I had learned over the decades. training and advocacy in my own city and bring about change at the national level. Little did I know then that a big part of my job would be to tackle a national crisis of crime and violence on public transportation.

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The number of violent incidents had been slowly increasing for years, but just before I became president, I felt like something had really changed. In February 2017, Winnipeg bus driver Irvine Fraser was stabbed to death by an unruly passenger he dragged off his bus. The news landed like a blow to me and to every transit operator who has ever had to deal with a troublesome passenger.

At that time, there were approximately 2,000 assaults on operators each year in Canada. When the pandemic hit, it first seemed like those numbers were dropping, but that was just an illusion caused by plummeting ridership. The number of assaults relative to traffic was actually on the rise. Then, as things started to reopen and riders returned to public transit, the number of violent incidents increased dramatically across the country, in communities large and small. It didn’t matter where you were. Transit union representatives in Saskatoon recently reported a dramatic increase in the number of assaults while driving — 38 last year alone, more than the previous four years combined. In Canada’s largest city, the Toronto Transit Commission recorded 1,068 violent incidents against riders in 2022, a 46% increase from 2021.

John Di Nino (photo by Patrick Marcoux)

Assaults range from relatively minor, such as verbal abuse and spitting, to those that make headlines. Last February, two TTC employees, a bus driver and a subway operator, were stabbed in separate incidents over the span of a week. In Edmonton last April, a man punched an elderly woman in a light rail station, knocking her onto the tracks. In January, two bus drivers were threatened with firearms in separate incidents. In Calgary last November, a woman was injured in a hatchet attack at a train station. A few days later, a man was shot by a flare and set on fire at the same station. A few months ago in London, a man tried to stab a bus driver at work. The attacker was released, and every day since, this operator worries about going to work. Will this person get on my bus? Will this happen to me again? Will it be worse this time?

Some of these assaults have been tragedies. Two passengers were murdered on Toronto’s transit system last year; one was a woman set on fire on a subway platform in June, and the other was a woman stabbed in a random incident in December.

Why did things get so bad, so fast? Ultimately, it’s because it’s not a transit issue, it’s tied to much deeper social tensions. The epidemic of transit violence is an offshoot of other issues that have gone unaddressed, especially our growing national housing crisis.

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Many of these assaults were committed by vulnerable or struggling people – people with mental health issues, people on the margins of society. And as housing affordability has rapidly deteriorated throughout the pandemic, there are more and more people in this kind of distress on our streets and taking refuge in our transit systems – people who have nowhere to go. Unfortunately, there are no specific statistics or figures on this, but many of those who work with the most vulnerable in our society have noticed the same pattern: people taking refuge in bus shelters, train stations and vehicles of public transport.

The response from governments and employers has been extremely reactive, not proactive. In January, the City of Toronto announced that it would deploy 80 additional officers throughout the TTC to combat violence. Six weeks later, the city announced the end of these measures. They only responded when the crisis was in full swing, with no funding in place to support it, and then it was over. Like the crisis itself, this weak response is not just a Toronto problem. I have yet to see any level of government anywhere come up with concrete plans to fix the problem, which means short-term security fixes, as well as long-term investments in housing and health care. health. These are discussions that need to take place – lives are literally at stake.

The same goes for the future of our transit systems. Public transit is a mobility right for all Canadians, and if we are truly a society that cares about climate change, we need to do our best with public transit. But people will stay away if they fear for their safety. As for the operators, I have never seen morale as low as it is today. Our colleagues are threatened, beaten, stabbed and shot.

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And there is a lack of accountability and transparency on the part of the transport agencies themselves. For example, when the TTC recently released data on assaults, it focused only on passengers and did not specify the number of attacks on staff. We also need a better mechanism for reporting specific incidents so that we can more accurately identify the underlying causes. What are the triggers for these incidents? How do we assess homelessness? How do we assess addiction issues? If we are to understand the true extent of this problem, as well as the real risks to our members, we need agencies to do a better job of reporting the circumstances surrounding violent crime.

This is personal to me in many ways. My wife was seriously injured in a shooting last December that killed five residents of our condo building. The attacker suffered from mental health issues and fell through the cracks, then tragedy struck. My personal experience of violence reinforces my view that we need to do better in terms of the social services we provide, the tools we use to mitigate threats of violence, and to ensure that people with mental health issues can access the care they need. They cannot do this when living on the streets or seeking refuge in train stations and bus shelters, pushed into increasingly desperate living situations.

I did a press conference on assaults on transit last month at the Vaughan Metropolitan Center station. When I entered the station, there was a person there who was obviously in some kind of crisis. I asked one of the TTC workers to call for help, and two York Regional Police officers were dispatched. They picked up the man, put him back on the subway and brought him back into the system — to Toronto. It’s not support. That doesn’t solve the problem. It’s taking the problem out of your jurisdiction.

This is why I called for the creation of a national task force to combat violence. We need to bring together all stakeholders — unions, transit employers, municipalities, police, transportation ministers — to hear directly from front-line staff. We need to figure out how to mitigate risk and then use that as a model to better protect staff and passengers across the country. We need the Canadian Urban Transit Association to facilitate these discussions and the next steps that flow from them. We need the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to understand the need for what we are trying to do to rebuild transit in their areas. We need the provincial and federal governments to help us with operational funds to implement the practices, training and supports we identify. And we need to talk about the housing crisis, the mental health crisis, and all the ways it intersects with public transit.

—As said to Caitlin Walsh Miller

How Canada’s housing crisis is fueling violence in our transit systems

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