This is the weekly Amplify newsletter, where you can be inspired and challenged by the voices, opinions and insights of women at The Globe and Mail.
Kate Wilkinson is a content editor for the Opinion section at The Globe and Mail.
Personal-safety tips are having a moment in Toronto. “Walk with confidence. Do not become distracted. Avoid using your cellphone or other electronic devices. Keep your head up and be alert to your surroundings,” the Toronto Transit Commission has advised – suggestions that have been featured by several media outlets since a recent cluster of violent attacks on the city’s transit system.
These tips have also been cropping up on my social media feeds, with Toronto women posting about the items they carry in their bags to feel safer on the TTC. In one TikTok video, a woman shows viewers a bright pink bottle of dog spray she carries with her to fend off a potential attacker – even though, she defiantly says, it’s illegal to do so. In another, a woman demonstrates how her plastic keychain, shaped like a bulldog, can morph into something akin to brass knuckles – the eye holes becoming rings for your fingers, while the triangular ears serve to ward off aggressors.
Having now lived in Toronto for a decade, I’ve experienced my share of uncomfortable interactions with other passengers (typically male) on the TTC. A couple of my preferred defence mechanisms actually run counter to the TTC’s safety tips. “Keep your head up and be alert” isn’t really useful when trying to present myself as an aloof and unbothered woman who can’t hear the obnoxious creep nearby – the one who’s hoping I’ll look his way if he just says the right combination of awful things in my direction. In those instances, a “cellphone or other electronic device” to stare at is a girl’s best friend.
While I wish it wasn’t true, such interactions have become somewhat normalized to me over time. My past few months of commuting, however, have been marked by a more notable feeling of unease. For me, the fear started to set in last summer when 28-year-old Nyima Dolma was attacked on a bus at Kipling Station, with the perpetrator (completely unknown to her) dousing her in some kind of fuel and lighting her on fire. She died in hospital the following month. In early December, two women were stabbed by a stranger at High Park subway station. One of the friends, 31-year-old Vanessa Kurpiewska, died from her injuries.
As random acts of violence have increased in frequency this winter (with stabbings, swarmings and other attacks occurring almost daily in mid-January), I’ve felt the city’s emotional temperature rising in tandem with my own. It’s become a frequent topic of conversation with family and friends. The word “unfair” gets used a lot – that an unspoken contract has been broken, that using public transit is meant to be mundane, not a choice that could result in injury or death. But there’s another type of unfairness that’s been raised with more frequency: our inability as a society to empathetically address the root causes of this violence.
“People with mental health and addiction issues who are not getting supports they need elsewhere are seeking shelter on the transit systems,” TTC spokesman Stuart Green said last week. Indeed, passing through the Spadina subway station (as I often do) will demonstrate to any observer that Toronto’s shelter and public housing systems are clearly inadequate. As the TTC has cut staff and pared down operations in recent years, a few of the Spadina entrances no longer have operators, with ticket booths boarded up. Boxes, shopping carts and other short-term dwelling structures, along with people calling them home, have filled the void as Toronto’s unhoused population struggles to find a respite from the cold. It’s a living example of systems in crisis, with deeply rooted problems that aren’t likely to be solved by putting more police officers on patrol in the transit system (as the Toronto Police Service started doing this past week).
One has to wonder: Would fewer people be living at Toronto transit stations this winter had they been provided with adequate housing supports last summer, instead of being subjected to the dismantling of their encampments by police? Evidence shows that greater access to housing, safer drug-use options and more funding for mental health and addiction services would do much more to help.
This personal-safety moment has felt both grating and disheartening. Anyone who presents as female, femme or non-binary has spent their lives making sure they follow the standard list of rules: don’t walk down poorly lit streets alone at night; check the back seat of the car before getting in to drive; move to a different subway car if someone’s making you uncomfortable. Personal-safety awareness abounds. What’s lacking is the ability of our institutions to lead with empathy and provide support where it’s truly needed.
Surely a city that spends more than $1-billion each year on policing can find some funding for long-term solutions to this crisis. Toronto’s proposed further service cuts to the TTC, scheduled to take effect this spring, certainly aren’t going to help matters. But rather than leave this to siloed approaches from the police and the TTC, funding should be used to alleviate the burden on these institutions by involving professional support workers and crisis response teams. As long as we continue pretending that we don’t know their root causes, these problems will fester, with potentially tragic results. In the long term, pink bottles of dog spray just aren’t going to cut it.
What else we’re thinking about:
Let’s all take a deep breath and watch this video of a golden retriever becoming best friends with everyone he meets on the train.
Introducing Marianne, a new weekly comic exclusive to Amplify:
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