Transit union calls for national task force as violent attacks reach ‘crisis level’

The call for a task force comes after a number of violent attacks targeting workers and riders on the TTC

By Jordan Omstead in Toronto

Violent attacks on public transit have reached “crisis levels,” the president of a major Canadian transit union said Wednesday, as he called for a national transit safety task force.

The task force must include transit agencies from across the country and representatives from all levels of government, said Amalgamated Transit Union Canada national president John Di Nino.

“These attacks, not only at the Toronto Transit Commission) but right across the country, are really at a crisis level,” Di Nino said in an interview Wednesday.

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

A task force should consider whether de-escalation training, harsher penalties, increased mental health funding, better housing supports and greater police presence could help prevent violence on transit, Di Nino said.

The call for a task force came after a number of violent attacks targeting workers and riders on the Toronto Transit Commission. 

In recent days, police have said a woman was stabbed on a streetcar, 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 at a subway station in an alleged hate-motivated assault. On Wednesday, a person was arrested after allegedly chasing two TTC workers with a syringe.

Last month, a woman was stabbed to death and another was injured in a random attack on a Toronto subway train.

Transit agencies need to be transparent about the extent of the safety issue, Di Nino said, calling for transparent reporting of violent incidents. Up to 3,000 transit operator or passenger assaults happen across Canada annually, he said, though more likely go unreported.

“We can ill 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.”

When asked about transit safety on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 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 said. “It’s something we are happy to partner with provinces and municipalities on.”

In a statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation said it is deeply concerned with the increase in violence and open to discussions about how to keep Ontario’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.”

TTC spokesman Stuart Green said the transit agency welcomed the call for a national task force and “out-of-the-box thinking” to address violence on transit since it can’t deal with the issue alone. 

“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.”

TTC CEO Rick Leary has been speaking to colleagues in cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston for insight, Green said. Agencies across North America are dealing with situations where public transit is acting as shelter from the cold weather, he said.

“We’re hearing public transit has become a venue for what we would typically classify as antisocial behaviour,” said Green. “People with mental health and addiction issues who are not getting supports they need elsewhere are seeking shelter on the transit systems.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory was set to meet with TTC, police and union leaders later this week to discuss transit safety, his press secretary said Tuesday. 

Other cities are also facing transit safety issues. 

Di Nino pointed to recent reports in Edmonton of bus drivers threatened at gunpoint. 

In that city, police have reported 35 violent occurrences on Edmonton Transit property as well as nine weapon-related reports since the beginning of 2023.

The City of Edmonton initiated a downtown core and transit system safety plan in May in response to increased violence, homelessness and drug use in the area. It implemented new bylaws for passengers, temporary restrooms and more police presence. It also put $860,000 towards addressing homeless encampments.

Meanwhile, RCMP have said five youths were accused of sexually assaulting three others on a Halifax Transit bus in October.

Di Nino said immediate measures like increased visibility and vigilance from police and fare enforcement officers could make a difference in reducing violence, but increased transit funding and professionals trained to de-escalate mental health issues are needed as long-term solutions.

“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,” he said. 

“We need to act now.”

– with files from Angela Amato. 

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

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