A racist attack on the subway sent shockwaves through the city, and put a stop to free New Year's Eve rides on the TTC for the next 30 years.
From the moment a group of up to 20 rowdy teens boarded the subway at Sheppard station during the final half-hour of 1976, TTC employees sensed trouble. Clad in ski jackets and jeans, the inebriated New Year’s revellers ignored the advice posted in ads promoting that night’s free service: they brought their party onto the TTC.
No one in the group realized that their actions would play a key role in ending free New Year’s Eve rides for the next 30 years.
As the train headed south, the teens moved between cars, smoked, and smashed bottles. While the group obliged conductor Peter Goehle when asked to remain in one car and butt out their smokes, they demonstrated their displeasure by giving him a Bronx cheer. As the train approached York Mills, three of the teens visited Goehle’s cabin to wish him a happy New Year. “I told them I didn’t mind if they had a good time,” Goehle later told the Star, “but I didn’t want it to get out of hand.”
Rowdiness on the TTC during New Year’s Eve had grown since it had accepted an offer from McGuinness Distillers to cover fares for the evening in December 1972. Sponsorship was necessary due to legislation that forbade the TTC from providing complimentary fares at its own cost. City officials, auto clubs, and temperance advocates hailed the free rides as an opportunity to combat drunk driving. McGuinness promoted the service through humorous ads advising revellers not to kiss TTC drivers.
The service caught on: ridership estimates across the system rose from around 242,000 in 1972/73 to 350,000 in 1976/77. The mood was generally mellow amid the blare of noisemakers and haze of pot smoke. “For many without parties or other functions to attend, welcoming the new year aboard the subway has become something of a tradition,” observed a Star editorial. “It’s healthy for citizens to turn to the transit system for a public celebration—just as much as it is for those who choose to turn up at Nathan Phillips Square.”
Yet some TTC officials grew alarmed at the behaviour they witnessed during New Year’s Eve. Chairman Gordon Hurlburt opposed the program, citing an incident in which he and his wife couldn’t use the stairs at Davisville due to vomit and shattered beer bottles. General manager of operations James Kearns warned in January 1974 that, as partying and open consumption of alcohol increased, “this might develop into a serious situation.”
That situation developed on Peter Goehle’s train. As the train passed Summerhill just before midnight, the teens noticed homeward-bound restaurant workers Gurmail Singh, Ranjit Singh Manjat, and Omparkash Verma. At least one of the teens approached Singh and called him a “Paki.” When Singh responded that he was a Punjabi-speaking Indian, the youth grabbed his hair and began punching him in the face. Goehle saw what was happening and contacted train driver Edith Bujold, who called the incident into transit control.
While waiting for instructions, the train stopped at Rosedale. James Carson, a 61-year-old investigator for the Ontario ombudsman’s office, boarded the train. He had spent a quiet evening with friends and was rushing home to his apartment at the Colonnade to check on his flu-stricken wife.
Carson boarded in the midst of the assault on two of the three men. Hearing a cry of “Let’s get the Pakistanis,” he urged the attackers to stop. One teen kicked and punched Carson, while another threw him off the train. Carson, who had fought in the Second World War and Korean War and worked as a counsellor at the Don Jail, told the Star that he had “never seen hate in the eyes of men as I did on the subway train that night.”
Despite a broken, bloody nose and a six-inch gash on his leg, Carson urged the assault victims, who had run off the train, to get back on. “I didn’t think it would be right to give up that easily,” he later noted. “We got on the train again and the passengers just sat there like lumps of granite. They were probably thinking, ‘Nice guy, damned fool.’” One assailant approached Carson and told him to put his head back or else he would hit him again.
Meanwhile, Bujold and Goehle were advised to keep the train running as normal until security met them at Queen Station. When the three victims got off the train at Bloor, Goehle called them to his window and asked if they wanted to continue south to talk to security. All refused. He was then approached by Carson, who felt Goehle had a “frightened, paralyzed look on his face” and was “gutless” for insisting the train move on. Goehle’s version was that Carson almost expected him to arrest the teens on the spot—“I wasn’t going after that group of 20 by myself.”
While the TTC claimed that security met the train at Queen, Bujold and Goehle indicated that nobody showed up until Union. The rowdy teens left the train at Queen to greet 1977.
News of the attack heightened awareness of racial tensions in the city, and racist acts targeting those of Indian or Pakistani descent in particular. Over New Year’s weekend, an NBC news program aired a report that declared racism in Toronto was “like a time bomb ticking away.” The past year had seen several racist attacks on TTC property and the increased use of “Paki” as an all-purpose slur. Editorial pages, such as the Globe and Mail’s, condemned these incidents:
Every single time something like this happens on the subway or anywhere else in Toronto, it must be greeted with anger. Racism and urban violence have to be fought hand-to-hand, on a daily basis by everybody if they are not, imperceptibly, to gain legitimacy… The transit system, and Metro, are headed for trouble if there is any feeling at all that these kinds of acts are “understandable” or “unavoidable.”
TTC officials bickered over the handling of the incident. Some believed the security system was fine and that the messages logged from the train didn’t leave a serious impression. Others, including Hurlburt and union officials, felt the train should have remained at Rosedale or Bloor until help arrived. TTC chief general manager Michael Warren felt that while the free rides saved lives, they encouraged the rowdyism that had led to 90 recorded incidents that night.
Thanks to an anonymous tip phoned into CFGM radio (now CFMJ), two of the teens were arrested on January 4. One was initially charged as an adult because New Year’s Eve was his 16th birthday, but he was dropped to juvenile delinquency status when it was realized that in the eyes of the law, he had not officially become a year older until January 1. The suspects were released into the custody of their families.
Over the following weeks, further reports of racially motivated attacks on people of Indian descent surfaced. Three teenage cousins visiting the city from London, Ontario, and New York City claimed they were beaten around 3 a.m. on New Year’s between Yonge and Spadina stations. On January 7, Guyana native Indal Narine was kicked in the back and legs at Victoria Park after he declared he wasn’t from Pakistan.
McGuinness sent mixed signals about continuing its sponsorship after the TTC commissioner suggested the distiller pay an additional $10,000 the following year to cover extra security. “Our $55,000 should be enough to cover the cost of a few broken subway windows and the mopping up of a little spilled beer,” stated McGuinness spokesperson Peter Mielzynski. “As far as we’re concerned, the protection of subway riders is the sole responsibility of the police New Year’s Eve or any other night. We simply buy time from the TTC. We can’t be expected to pay policemen’s salaries as well.”
There was debate over who should police the subway; Warren felt it was the Metropolitan Toronto Police’s responsibility, not the TTC’s. Deputy police chief Jack Ackroyd felt the media was going overboard with its coverage and claimed that exaggerating racial problems would deepen tensions. “If you start keeping track of how many times one racial group assaults another,” he said, “I’m not sure that won’t escalate the problem further.”
On January 14, the Star published the first statements from the men Carson had tried to protect. While Manjat declined to talk, Singh and Verma discussed the incident and its lingering psychological effects. Verma, a 46-year-old father of five, admitted that he was “scared all the time.” He had been afraid to help the others because of his age and fear of being struck. He observed, though, that he was generally happy in Canada and that “all countries have bad people.” The three men were discovered through the efforts of publisher Aslam Khan, who was irritated that the media had assumed the victims were Pakistani (none of them were).
In response to such incidents, Metro Toronto chairman Paul Godfrey hired Ryerson president Walter Pitman to serve as a one-man task force on racism. Pitman quickly became alarmed by a report that showed a high level of bigotry among Toronto high school students, especially toward those of Arabic, Indian, and Pakistani backgrounds. His report, Now is Not Too Late, was issued in the fall of 1977 and provided 41 recommendations related to fighting discrimination.
Carson was honoured for his bravery, especially by the city’s Asian communities. He was presented with a ceremonial sword by the Shromani Sikh Society on January 23 and named “Man of the Year” by a Pakistani community newspaper. Globe and Mail columnist Scott Young wondered when, or if, the white establishment would jump in, as officials such as police chief Harold Adamson had urged people not to emulate Carson’s actions. “In my opinion, people who have the bravery and humanity to act in some way when other people are being bullied should be honoured, thanked, treated as exceptional citizens,” Young wrote. “It diminishes us all when this does not happen at an official level of our society.” Those honours finally materialized in June, when Carson received the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship.
During a January speech in front of the Canadian Council for Racial Harmony, Carson (who’d been made an honorary member) blamed entitled inebriated youth for the recent racist attacks. “It’s about time we realized that the bulk of these kids are just damn rotten spoiled brats,” he told the audience. “If these kids treat their parents like dirt at home, why are we so surprised when they lash out at people in the subway.”
Yet Carson forgave his assailants when they had their day in court. In April, Judge H.D. Wilkins placed both offenders on probation for six months. By the time the decision was handed down, Manjat and Singh had returned to India. Their absence, combined with difficulties in identifying the prime assailant, led to the dropping of one of the common assault charges.
In August, McGuinness declined to renew its sponsorship. The TTC decided to continue extended-hour service on New Year’s Eve, but to charge the normal fare. Each of the 27 trains in operation that night carried two uniformed police officers, while a mini police station operated at Bloor. When the stats were released in January 1978, the TTC discovered that the axing of free fares had cut ridership in half. Though Warren mused about accepting proposals from new potential sponsors, free New Year’s Eve rides were dead.
The TTC resisted offering free fares for the next 30 years. By the 21st century, this set it apart from GO and transit systems in surrounding municipalities such as Brampton and Mississauga. When asked about in 2003, a TTC spokesperson was blunt: “We don’t do that.” As late as 2006, TTC chair Adam Giambrone noted the system might lose as much as $1 million if it offered free service. The following year, revising losses down to $90,000, the TTC voted in favour of four hours of free service on December 31. Initially backed by Capital One, the 1970s tradition was reborn thanks to a series of partners, including current sponsor Corby (who now own several old McGuinness brands).
Additional material from the January 10, 1973, January 3, 1974, January 4, 1977, January 5, 1977, January 6, 1977, January 8, 1977, January 12, 1977, January 17, 1977, January 28, 1977, April 7, 1977, December 30, 2006, and December 7, 2007 editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 19, 1972, January 3, 1977, January 4, 1977, January 5, 1977, January 6, 1977, January 7, 1977, January 10, 1977, January 14, 1977, January 17, 1977, January 14, 1978, January 18, 1978, and December 31, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star; and the January 5, 1977, and January 6, 1977 editions of the Toronto Sun.