Riding the Subway Rails of Violence
by Alice Xu
In most of my decade of living in Toronto, all I thought about was moving away. Miserable winters and unbearable costs of living were easy to ignore, but in recent years, local headlines only spoke of violence and detriment—stabbings in subway and streetcars, kidnappers targeting women at night, people being lit on fire—and soon, those headlines bled into my life, too. It started small, from being suspicious of strangers and choosing to get out of the subway whenever someone on the train yelled too loud. Then it became personal, like when a stabbing happened on the route my friend takes to school, or I heard gunshots from the mall right next to my house. Then we took action; first, my family moved into a safer neighboring suburb then I was sent to school in another country. But these headlines persisted, and worse of all, these events continued to spread.
Rather than being targeted attacks, the acts of violence making the headlines were usually random and unprovoked. Normal civilians were being stabbed, kidnapped, and lit on fire by complete strangers on their daily commute on public transportation. This year, the CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) reported that acts of violence on the TTC shot up 46% in the last year, and 60% from pre-pandemic 2019. In addition, over 71% of people in the province of Ontario feel less safe taking public transportation than they did last year.
This trend of unprovoked attacks is also present in other cities across Canada. In Edmonton, storefronts are being smashed, pedestrians fatally assaulted, and the crime rate is up 11.3% from 2021-2022. Edmonton officials reported a 53% increase in attacks on the Edmonton Transit Service this year, with 70% of those being unprovoked. In Winnipeg, a 2022 survey finds that 56% of residents living in its core feel more unsafe than they did during the previous year. It has held the title of having Canada’s highest rate of homicides for a city with over 500,000 people since the pandemic struck in 2020. In Vancouver, where the trend first emerged, cases of serious assaults have risen by 30% since the pandemic, with 62% of Metro Vancouver residents reporting a deterioration in the downtown core, and 71% agreeing that violence and crime have gone up since COVID. Clearly, this trend has swept Canada, and is now a national issue. But what caused it?
Although many have placed the blame on those with mental illnesses and addictions, it’s not as simple as that. Dr. Sandy Simpson, chair of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and at the University of Toronto, says that “people battling the most severe mental illnesses like psychosis make up a tiny fraction of the overall number of individuals accused.” Dr. Simpson adds by saying that “pointing a finger at the mentally ill risks alienating then and allows officials to skim over public policy failures like social assistance rates and minimum wages that keep people in poverty.” For instance, the two main social assistance programs in Ontario, Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) provide a maximum stipend of $733 and $1308, respectively, per month. In contrast, the average cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is over $2,500 dollars, so many individuals who depend on these programs due to health or mental conditions may not even have enough for housing. Furthermore, Dr. Simpson said that “mental health services are so underfunded that it can take a year for somebody with complex mental health needs to access professionals who can help.”
But instead of funding social assistance programs and mental health services, transit companies such as the TTC are focusing on using the city budget to put more constables, police officers, and workers in their stations, as well as hiring more Streets to Homes outreach workers. In the past, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said, “if there is a role for the federal government to step up, we will no doubt step up.” However he quickly shifted the responsibility of mitigating violence to Provincial and Municipal governments. There’s no progress being made, so, what’s next for Canada?
Alice Xu is a writer and high school junior from Toronto and New Mexico. Outside of school, she dedicates her time to volunteering with political organisations, working on projects dedicated to tackling racism in the Greater Toronto Area, and advocating for mental health and social justice in her local community.