Canada’s public transit systems facing ‘crisis’ of violence. What can be done?

Click to play video: 'TTC workers allegedly chased with syringe amid string of assaults on Toronto transit employees'
TTC workers allegedly chased with syringe amid string of assaults on Toronto transit employees
WATCH: TTC workers allegedly chased with syringe amid string of assaults on Toronto transit employees – Jan 25, 2023

A recent spike in violent attacks on commuters in Canadian cities like Edmonton, Toronto and Winnipeg is sparking conversations around public transit safety, and raising difficult questions about what can be done to protect the people using transit systems across the country.

Over the last few days in Toronto, a woman was stabbed on a streetcar in Toronto, two uniformed TTC workers were assaulted on their way to work, a TTC driver was shot with a BB gun, and a person wearing a religious head covering was hit in a subway station in an alleged hate-motivated assault. On Wednesday, a person was arrested after allegedly chasing two TTC workers with a syringe.

On Thursday, Toronto’s police chief said the force was increasing its daily presence on city transit in light of recent violence in the system. More than 80 officers are now expected to be in place daily to reduce victimization, prevent crimes of opportunity and enhance public safety.

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In Edmonton, police have reported 35 violent occurrences on Edmonton Transit property as well as nine weapon-related reports since the beginning of 2023, and transit officials in Calgary are also reporting struggles with violence in that city.

Some of those who work in the industry say the violence is unfolding as the country grapples with post-pandemic social issues like homelessness and a mental health crisis.

“During the pandemic and post-pandemic, there are a lot more under-housed in the (transit) system, using it to get out, using it as a shelter in a sense,” said Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) CEO Rick Leary during a conversation with Greg Brady on AM640 in Toronto on Wednesday.

AM640 is part of the Corus Entertainment radio network. Corus is the parent company of Global News.

“That’s why we’re working with Streets to Homes and others, and being at the table with the mayor and the city and the police and our union partners to talk about what we can do to help under-housed as well as those with mental health issues,” Leary said.

“That’s become a lot more apparent post-pandemic.”

Click to play video: 'TTC worker shot in face on Saturday speaks out'
TTC worker shot in face on Saturday speaks out

According to TTC spokesman Stuart Green, “People with mental health and addiction issues who are not getting supports they need elsewhere are seeking shelter on the transit systems.”

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“We’re hearing public transit has become a venue for what we would typically classify as antisocial behavior,” Green told The Canadian Press Wednesday.

Green said it’s an issue the transit agency cannot deal with alone.

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“We want everybody at the table because we are not equipped as a transit agency to deal with broader mental health, societal issues,” he said. “Our core business is getting buses, streetcars and subways out on time. It’s not delivering social services.”

Global News reached out to Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett for comment on how the issue can be addressed but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

In a radio interview Thursday, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre said he wants to see bail reforms for “habitual violent” offenders. He also called for longer sentences.

“They need to be denied bail until such time as they are tried,” he said.

“And if they are convicted again, there should be longer sentences,” Poilievre said on AM640 Toronto.

He further stressed the need to invest more money on drug abuse treatment and recovery.

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“We need to put some of that money … to reduce the massive epidemic of drug abuse … many of the random attacks are by drug addicts who desperately need treatment,” Poilievre said.

Leary said they are looking “at all kinds of data and statistics” on where such incidents happen and share them with others to ensure the safety of transit employees.

“It is not an easy job,” he said.

“They were there for us during the pandemic. They are there for us, for the city, and we want to be there for them as is. We (are trying) to bring people back to public transit.”

Leary added that the plan is to boost the presence of officials on public transit like more “supervisors, special constables, fare inspectors” even if it’s just for “a couple of stops.”

“It gives them that sense of comfort and that we’re listening and we’re responding.”

Click to play video: 'Police searching for young people allegedly involved in TTC swarming incident'
Police searching for young people allegedly involved in TTC swarming incident

Violent attacks on public transit are reaching “crisis levels” across the country, according to Amalgamated Transit Union Canada (ATU) national president John Di Nino.

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Di Nino is calling for a national transit safety task force to address these issues, and told The Canadian Press that the task force must include transit agencies from across the country and representatives from all levels of government.

He said these attacks are not only happening on the TTC, but “right across the country, and are really at a crisis level.”

Halifax, for example, has had its share of incidents. Last November, RCMP arrested five youths accused of sexually assaulting three others on a Halifax Transit bus.

Last week, a father and son were both punched in the head a number of times while riding a Winnipeg transit bus. Two people were taken into custody.

“We’re seeing operator assaults, violence against transit workers and our riders at an alarming rate across this country,” Di Nino said.

He said that a task force could look into whether de-escalation training, harsher penalties, increased mental health funding, better housing supports, and greater police presence could help prevent violence on transit.

Up to 3,000 transit operator or passenger assaults happen across Canada annually, said Di Nino, though more are likely to go unreported as he called for more transparency from transit agencies about the extent of the safety issue.

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“We can’t afford to keep saying ‘our thoughts and prayers’ and ‘our best wishes go’ and ‘this is a one-off.’ That time has passed,” Di Nino said. “We need to have these discussions now.”

The head of the Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 583, representing transit workers in Calgary, raised similar concerns in a conversation on Corus Entertainment’s QR Radio on Wednesday.

“We’re asking our stakeholders, the federal government, provincial government, municipalities and all transit agencies to come to the table … and bring forth serious, concrete recommendations on how we can make a safer transit system in every jurisdiction,” Mike Maher said.

“Although we do appreciate the commitment with the current municipal government, recognizing … and putting money towards it, there needs to be something additional,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Toronto Police hunt for suspect in connection with alleged hate-motivated assault at TTC station'
Toronto Police hunt for suspect in connection with alleged hate-motivated assault at TTC station

He agreed that a national transit safety task force that ATU Canada has called for, could help look into additional supports that might be needed to prevent violence on transit.

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Maher said the violence is deterring people from wanting to become transit operators, describing the impact on hiring as “huge.”

His chapter is calling for amendments to the Criminal Code to make attacking a transit operator an aggravating factor in a criminal offence.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has assured that the federal government will continue to work with provinces and cities to ensure Canadians are safe.

“If there is a role for the federal government to step up, we will no doubt step up,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s something we are happy to partner with provinces and municipalities on.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation has also expressed its concern over the increase in violence in public transit and said they are open to discussions about how to keep the province’s public transit systems safe.

“Transit workers play an essential role in ensuring Ontarians can get where they need to go every day, and they, along with commuters, deserve to feel safe,” said Dakota Brasier, press secretary for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney.

“All levels of government agree on the importance of ensuring transit systems across the province are safe.”

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– with files from The Canadian Press

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