Montreal’s Taxi Wars

by Nick Brunt

On September 15th, hundreds of Montreal taxi drivers and owners participated in a coordinated protest against Uber, the increasingly popular smartphone-based rideshare service. Frustrated by the provincial government’s failure to take a stand against their upstart competitors, the protesters drove slowly as a convoy to the Trudeau Airport after gathering at the former Montreal Technoparc. They argue that Uber’s service is both illegal and unsafe, but those serious allegations haven’t stopped their new rivals from taking a large chunk out of the taxi industry’s profits both in Montreal and around the world. In response, the drivers and their unions have been calling on the city’s police force to do more to catch and fine Uber drivers and ultimately impound their vehicles.

Conflict between transportation companies in Montreal is nothing new, and in fact the few angry, but civil, protests staged over the past few months pale in comparison to the vitriol and violence that dominated such confrontations in the past. In October of 1969, the result of taxi driver’s protests was not simply increased traffic on Highway 20, but rather a “night of terror” to be remembered for decades.

October 7, 1969 witnessed the intersection of several simmering conflicts in the city of Montreal. It had been a particularly trying decade for the city’s police force, who were frequently tasked with disarming separatists’ bombs in addition to patrolling nearly 100 protests per year. Fueled by these increasing demands of the job and desiring greater salaries in line with those of their Toronto counterparts, the police union was having difficulty negotiating a new contract with the city in the fall of 1969. Under the impression that the municipal government was not taking the negotiations seriously enough, the police force decided to organize a daylong ‘study session’ (a thinly-veiled coordinated strike) at an East-End arena on the seventh of October. That morning, all of the city’s thirty-seven hundred police officers walked off the job, joined in solidarity by some twenty-four hundred firemen. Suddenly, Quebec’s largest metropolis was without both its police and its firefighters.

At the same time, tensions were rising in the city between a radical taxi drivers’ union, le Mouvement de libération du taxi (MLT), and Montreal’s foremost limousine service, Murray Hill. The MLT had long held a grievance against the latter for their monopoly on the pick-up of passengers at the city’s Dorval airport. Leaping on the opportunity presented by the absent striking police, nearly 800 protesters – mostly cabbies, but also joined by far-left separatists – descended on the Murray Hill garage in Griffintown. The Montreal police, wise to the protester’s plans, not only did nothing to stop the march, but actively hindering the scrambling efforts of the RCMP and the provincial police to respond to the crisis as it reached its boiling point.

As soon as the protesters reached the garage, all hell broke loose. Gunfire erupted from the crowd and the roof of the garage. Four Murray-Hill buses were set alight, and one was even used by the mob to barge through a garage door. A plainclothes provincial police officer attempting to defuse the situation, Robert Dumas, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant during an exchange of fire between the Murray Hill security forces and the crowd below. The protest, fueled by separatist and student rage, rapidly spread throughout the downtown core and devolved into a full-scale riot.

In an emergency session of Quebec’s National Assembly held that very night in response to the riot, emergency measures were passed forcing the striking police back to work to quell the violence. At midnight, the police officers resumed their duties and took to the streets to de-escalate the raging conflict now virtually unrecognizable as a simple rift between taxi drivers and a limousine company. In addition to the violence at Murray-Hill, looters and vandals had begun to break shop windows and steal from displays. The police reluctantly spent the rest of the night chasing down and rounding up the now numerous heavily armed cabbies, radical separatists, and opportunistic thieves. By the time order was restored, some 108 people had been arrested. The sixteen hours of unrest had cost the city an estimated two million dollars in damages (equivalent to about 12 million in 2015) and the lives of two people, including the provincial policeman Dumas.

The events of the night of October 7th eventually led to the creation of the Montreal Urban Community (MUC), a larger tax base which enabled the doubling of police officer’s pay by 1974. However, the era of civil unrest in the city was certainly not over. Barely a year later, a decade of social reform and dissatisfaction would culminate in the infamous October Crisis, and the country’s only peacetime use of the War Measures Act. It would certainly still be several more years until Montreal ever truly settled down. As for the taxi drivers who instigated the October 7th riot, or the Murray-Hill Riot as it is generally known, they achieved exactly what they set out to do: Murray-Hill was eventually stripped of their exclusive right to service Dorval airport.

Given the relative calm and civil order of Montreal today, it is unlikely that a night such as that of October 7th, 1969 will be seen again. The taxi drivers of the city, however enraged at Uber, seem wisely bent on using peaceful means to protest these days, lest they turn the tide of public opinion even further in the favour of their new, less expensive competition. Any resolution of this newest conflict, however, would appear to be unlikely in the near future. As of publication, the transportation wars of Montreal still show no signs of slowing down. The police, too, are once again embroiled in a dispute with the city, as they were in 1969: this time over pension reforms. While not taking the same drastic action as they did in 1969, they are still protesting in their own unique way by adopting brightly colored camouflage pants as the official uniforms of dissent. For all the changes of the past fifty years, some things feel like they haven’t changed at all. The city would do well to learn its lesson from its past and work to resolve the current conflict before it comes to a similarly grotesque head-to-head of the taxi wars of 1969.

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