Weekend assault sheds light on 'racist' treatment of Hamilton cabbies

Police are treating the weekend spraying of Hamilton taxi driver with gasoline as a possible hate crime.

Police treating the Saturday spraying of a taxi driver with gasoline as a hate crime

Cabbies often try to ignore racist slurs and comments that are directed at them, says Ejaz Butt, the founding director of the Ontario Taxi Workers' Union. (Terry Asma/CBC)

This past weekend's attack on a Hamilton cabbie was the third in less than two months, once again drawing attention to the dangers some face driving a taxi for a living. 

At around 3:15 a.m. Saturday, police say, an off-duty taxi driver was sprayed with gas from a fuel pump after he refused a man a ride. Though the 50-year-old cabbie was not injured in the attack, he was also subjected to an indignity he may not so easily be able to wash away, police say.

The assailant, said police spokesman Mark Cox, spouted insults about "the immigrant population of Canada" at the driver. For that reason, police are treating the assault as a possible hate/bias crime.

Cox said he didn't know the driver's background, but said the cabbie is a "member of the racialized community."

Hamilton taxi driver Asif Abbas says experiencing casual racism is so ordinary for the city's cabbies, whose ranks include scores of immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia, most try to ignore the abuse.

"Most of the time, we just think, 'he's just being an idiot,' " Abbas said. "As long as it isn't so violent in nature … we don't like it, but we take it. We try to forget about it."

Drivers, he said, often don't respond to racist comments with any retort, fearing their passengers, who are sometimes intoxicated, will grow more aggressive in their words and actions.

Social barriers

Wayne Lewchuk, a labour studies professor at McMaster University, said there are several reasons why taxi drivers, and other frontline workers in the service industry, face discrimination or harassment on the basis of their ethnicity.

One is the nature of their jobs. Many newcomers, even those with sterling educational credentials, lack the social capital in Canada to break into more sought-after fields.

"People who come and don't have many connection do jobs that nobody else wants to do," he said.

Asif Abbas is a Hamilton taxi driver who has been vocal on the need for increased cabbie safety. (Matt Moir/CBC)

For some, that means putting themselves into situations where they're forced to endure abuse from others. "I think people who work in the service industry often get the brunt of people's anger," Lewchuk said.  

However, Lewchuk added that it's not uncommon for persons of colour in any field field of work to encounter racist language.

"It doesn't matter if you're a doctor or if you're driving a taxi cab — there's just a level of latent racism within our society."  

But Ejaz Butt, the founding director of the Ontario Taxi Workers' Union, says cabbies today face fewer racist comments than they did when he moved to Canada in 1987.

"The media plays a big role in this," said the Pakistani-born cab driver and labour activist. "They let the people know what the punishments are for being racist."

However, he said, on average, passengers — particularly, younger clientele — behave in a worse manner then they did when he started in the business.

"Once they come out of the bars, they are fully loaded. Probably somebody's kicked them out of the bar and the only anger they can take out is on the cab driver."

Unless an incident is severe, though, cabbies tend not to report cases of harassment to the police or their employers, Butt says.

"What I think is that the drivers … they don't want to get involved in this," he said. "They have more worries about their families and don't want to waste time when they could be earning money."

Violent assaults 'not just about money'

What's more alarming, Butt says, is the contributing role racism has played in violent assaults on taxi drivers. He said he's disappointed that police didn't treat the beating of Hamilton cabbie Anwar Sajad earlier this summer as a hate crime.

According to police, a passenger, 19, assaulted the 55-year-old outside a townhouse complex on Limeridge Road on July 16. Sajad suffered a dislocated shoulder, a broken pelvis and a broken leg in the attack and is still in hospital.

"I know that there had been many incidents and that they were punched the driver and go out," said Butt of the incident. "To beat the person to that extent over $12, that means someone really hates somebody."

Sajad's daughter Zunaira, 22, has also suggested the attack on her father was racially motivated. "We're immigrants. We're from Pakistan. We're Muslims," she told CBC Hamilton in July. "Clearly, there's a racial aspect to this. It's not just the money."

However, Evelyn Myrie, the executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, a group that advocates on behalf of newcomers and minority groups, said that it'd be premature to declare that, in general, race is the motivating factor in assaults on Hamilton cab drivers.

"It's a stretch it to say that's why people are being attacked," she said. "I wouldn't want to go in that direction yet, but I would be curious to look at it more."

With files from Matt Moir