Source: BillyCabic/Flickr

There has been a marked increase in violent assaults on Toronto public transit. This is a sign of a hopeless society that has reached a dead end.

Uptick in violent attacks

2022 saw a number of violent assaults on passengers of Toronto transit. In April, a Seneca College student was shot and killed outside of Sherbourne subway station while on his way to work. Later that month, a woman was shoved onto the subway tracks, and only avoided being hit by the train by rolling under the lip of the platform. Then in July, a woman was randomly attacked and set on fire while riding the bus, later succumbing to her injuries in the hospital. And in early December, a random stabbing attack took place on the platform of High Park station, leaving one woman dead and another injured.

These egregious instances are part of a general trend. Last year the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) reported a notable uptick in violent offences against TTC passengers. In the first half of the year, there were 451 instances of violence against riders. If they continued at this rate through the rest of the year, then the TTC will have reported 900 such cases for the year of 2022, an increase of 35 percent since 2019. Violence on public transit is on the rise.

However, this violence is not confined to the transit system. As Lex Harvey pointed out in the Toronto Star: “There is nothing inherently unsafe about transit, which is a public space that reflects the broader issues of the city that it moves. The TTC is a microcosm of Toronto, which is struggling with a mental health crisis, a housing crisis and a drug poisoning crisis, all which have persisted for decades but reached a tipping point during the pandemic.” Indeed, 2022 was a bad year for Toronto in terms of violent crime. But the uptick in crime was not limited to violent assaults. Car theft, robbery, and break-ins all saw an increase. Nor is the issue exclusive to Toronto; Montreal has also seen a rise in the number of violent crimes such as homicides, as well as an increase in the number of car thefts.

Not an isolated issue

This trend must be understood as a symptom of a society in decline. Life is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the average Canadian. The national inflation rate hit 6.8 per cent in November, and was even higher for basic necessities like food (11.4 per cent) and gasoline (13.7 per cent). Already, 17 per cent of households report eating less food in order to pay the bills. While prices are surging, wages have not kept up with the increased cost of living: after decades of stagnancy, the average base salary increase in 2022 was just four per cent. Workers are getting poorer. At the same time, interest rates have increased while Canadian households are drowning in debt, leaving many families struggling just to pay their interest.

Meanwhile, the homelessness crisis has deepened. According to Toronto Public Health, homelessness kills one person every two days. Given the difficulty in ascertaining these statistics, the real number is likely much higher. This is a result of speculative investment on the housing market, which artificially inflates prices and makes it impossible for many to afford a place to live. This same speculative investment keeps a sizable percentage of housing units empty for the sake of profit. Simultaneously, the opioid crisis, also a result of capitalist profiteering, has led to the present drug poisoning crisis in Toronto. All of these factors contribute to a general mental health crisis. And of course, the climate crisis weighs down on everyone’s mind, creating a general sense of pessimism and hopelessness for the future, especially among the youth.

When a given form of society is able to develop the economy productively, when it is able to provide people with good living standards and give them hope for the future, it is possible to maintain relative social stability. When it seems that life is getting better every year, people tend to look forward with optimism. But in a period of severe crisis, the stresses of “everyday life” become too much for many people to take. In such a situation, it should come as no surprise that we have seen an increase in violent attacks and crime.

That this is the result of a general crisis is shown by the fact that most of these attacks are not premeditated. In the case of the High Park stabbing, the victim and the attacker did not know each other. According to the Toronto Sun, when the accused made his first court appearance, he looked confused, and often rested his head in his hands. Cases like these are the product of a society that is sick to its foundations.

A false solution

As usual, Mayor John Tory’s first thought was: “How can I use this to give more money to the police?”. On Jan. 3, he announced his proposal to increase the annual police budget by $48.3 million—the third increase in three years, which would add an additional 200 officers to the force. Defending his plan to an audience of reporters, Tory said “[the increased police budget] is but one element of keeping the city safe… What’s sacrosanct is the safety of the city”. But Tory did not explain how swelling the size of a self-admittedly racist police force would make the city any safer.

By their own admission, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) disproportionately subjects members of racial minorities to strip searches, and their officers are far more likely to resort to violence (including use of firearms) against Black people, Indigenous people, and other racialized groups. As recently as the summer of 2021, this same police force brutalized homeless people and peaceful protestors, arresting dozens while clearing out homeless encampments from Toronto’s parks. At a time when Toronto homeless shelters are being pushed to their limit to the point that they have to turn people away, Tory is pouring money into the very institution that criminalizes homelessness.

The abusive nature of the TPS goes as high as the top: the new chief of police is linked to the infamous Pussy Palace raid, in which Toronto police officers invaded a lesbian bathhouse and sexually harassed dozens of patrons. Are we to believe that giving more money to this institution will somehow make the transit system a safer place?

That the problem is not solvable by such means should be obvious. The uptick in crime is a symptom of capitalist decay, and it cannot be done away with by filling up the streets with more racist cops. Many violent outbursts are a result of mental health crises, and the TTC is no exception. But police are infamously bad at dealing with people in crisis, often resorting to use-of-force tactics rather than attempting to de-escalate the situation. As the police murder of Sammy Yatim shows, we cannot trust them to handle this task. And since many of these violent crimes occur spontaneously, extra police would literally solve nothing.  Ultimately, the police are armed bodies of men whose purpose is to protect private property and serve the interests of the capitalists. Far from solving the problem, they will only make it worse.

Social spending?

In response to John Tory’s proposal, several “progressive” city councillors published a joint statement, calling for increased social spending to address “the root causes of crime and violence: poverty, discrimination, lack of opportunities, underinvestment, and inequality.” They pointed out that “increasing police spending without simultaneous investments in social and community infrastructure does not make our communities safer.” This is correct in the sense that it focuses on the material root of the problem. However, the statement stops short of opposing Tory’s police budget increase, proposing instead “a collaborative partnership between the City of Toronto, the Toronto Police Services, and residents”.

Councillor for Ward 3 Amber Morley says that a “multifaceted approach” is necessary to ensure that “things like housing options… out of the cold programs, [and] warming centres” are provided. While these things would help, there is one major problem: John Tory has no such intentions.

Far from increasing social spending, Tory has advised cutting spending on services. The TTC budget for 2023 includes “deep budget cuts” as advised by none other than the mayor himself! Not only will there be a fare hike, but the TTC will run nine per cent less service this year than pre-pandemic levels. This will mean that vehicles will be more crowded, and there will be up to 10-minute wait times for the subway. It is difficult to see how overcrowding subway platforms with tons of frustrated people will make for a safer transit experience, but not to worry: the budget also includes millions of dollars for additional transit cops! With a government like this, who needs criminals?

A bigger problem

The group of city councillors calls for investment in things like “affordable housing, mental health services and good jobs”. While all of these things would help, the question remains: how do we achieve these things? 

As we have previously explained, the homelessness crisis does not stem from any lack of housing supply, but from the capitalist nature of the Canadian housing market which is flooded with speculative investors who drive up prices. Likewise, there is no shortage of resources to spend on good jobs and mental health services: Canadian corporations have seen their profits balloon in recent years, and they collectively sit on more than $1.5 trillion in idle cash! This ludicrous amount of money cannot find an outlet for profitable investment, and so it just sits in the bank accounts of corporations doing nothing. Despite all this, following advice from the Bank of Canada, the ruling class has resisted wage increases tooth and nail. So long as the vast majority of the economy is allowed to stay in private hands, it will remain this way.

Once one understands this, it becomes clear that John Tory is not the main issue; he is only a symptom of a larger problem: the capitalist system.

Even if a well-meaning mayor were to come to power, they would immediately come under the pressure of the ruling class and be forced to submit to their will. One need look no further than the mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, who won her first election with a “left-wing” campaign. Since she first took office, she has governed not much differently from a right-wing mayor like Tory, increasing the city’s police budget and cutting the city’s housing budget in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Ultimately, no politician or party makes their decisions in a vacuum. All of the most important decisions about how society is run must coincide with the interests of the bosses who will not fund social housing, mental health services and definitely do not want to provide good jobs for all. 

Which way forward?

The increased transit violence is a microcosm of a hopeless society that is on its last legs. Capitalism is now only capable of producing misery and despair. But all of the means exist to end this suffering and provide everyone a decent standard of life. What is necessary is to take  the top 150 banks and corporations—the main levers of the economy—out of the hands of a small layer of parasitic capitalists and put them under the control of the whole of society.

On this basis, a socialist economy could allow for full employment with decent wages, a rational plan to provide high-quality housing for all, abolition of the dead weight of household debt, reducing the hours of the workweek with no loss of pay, and the unleashing of all necessary resources to fully fund an expansion of public transit, health services, and a socialist plan to protect the environment. In short: a decent living for all, and a truly hopeful society fit for humans to live in. Without this, the hopelessness of society will continue to express itself with increased violence and desperation. As Rosa Luxemburg famously said, the choice before us is socialism or barbarism! This is what we in Fightback/La Riposte socialiste are fighting for. Join us in this task!