Surrey Central station is located in downtown Surrey, with immediate access to Central City Shopping Centre and the Surrey campus of Simon Fraser University. A major transit hub, the station has a daily average ridership of over 30,000 commuters, earning its place as the busiest of the four stations located within Surrey. Over the years, the station has received a reputation as a dangerous hotspot for crime, including violence, drug trafficking, and prostitution.
As an avid commuter myself — primarily due to the increasing costs of parking in downtown Vancouver — I’ve encountered the personalities that make up Surrey Central station’s reputation. Bony men and frail women, all wearers of the same skeletal face, trapped inside hollow shells and emaciated figures. It is not uncommon to witness these disconcerting men and women shooting up drugs or engaging in sexual acts in the hidden corners of the station.
But they are not the only ones that characterize Surrey Central station. Taxi drivers spend hours parked outside the transit hub, waiting to pick up commuters off the skytrain, hoping to get the next big trip. The taxi industry is a competitive business in Vancouver, and it is only getting more crowded. As the daughter of a taxi driver, I was already well aware of the dramatic shift in the economics of the taxi industry. Once worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, taxi licences in B.C. have experienced a steep plunge because of the unpredictability ridesharing companies created within the industry. My father purchased his taxi license for $80,000 in 1998. Today, its value has plummeted to nearly zero, with few wanting to try their luck in a disappearing industry. My father’s perseverance has led him to become less reliant on the taxi industry as a means of income. Other drivers, however, have not been so lucky.
When returning home from a visit to Vancouver, I saw the long line of taxicabs along Surrey Central station’s sidewalk. When placed together, the cabs comprise a colourful mosaic of various taxi companies, including Newton Whalley and Surdell. The painted cabs prove even more vibrant against the station’s dull infrastructure made of different variants of grey.
“Madam, where would you like to go?” the taxi driver first in line called to me, as he leaned against the passenger door with his arms folded across his chest. I looked at the lengthy line behind him, at the faces of other taxi drivers whose eyes appeared to be pleading “No here, here!” They all looked the same: men of South Asian descent, reading newspapers or scrolling away mindlessly on their cellphones. They all appeared beat-down and tired.
The first driver reminded me of my grandfather with his heavily wrinkled face and the red turban tied perfectly atop his head. His crisp, white, half-sleeve button-up shirt was tucked neatly into his grey dress pants. As he adjusted the top of his turban, his left sleeve lifted slightly. I caught the glimpse of lighter skin on his upper arm, heavily contrasting against the rest of his deeply tanned body; the hours spent in his taxicab were painted on his skin.
I nodded to him, signaling my acceptance of his ride offer. He opened the passenger door and hurriedly got behind the wheel. It began to drizzle as I walked towards the taxi. I kept my head down as I ran out from the protection of the station’s roof, cursing myself for forgetting my umbrella on the skytrain.
The driver was quiet, humming to the tune of Punjabi music blasting through the speakers in his taxi. Outside, my eyes fixated on an old, bony man sitting on the station’s steps — the concrete was damp from the rain, but he sat right on the steps like it was summer. I noticed the needle marks on his arms. His expression was of exhaustion and a hint of frustration. The world seemed too cruel for this man; he had had enough. The dark circles under his eyes seemed to be filled with experience, suggesting that this man had stories to tell. And yet he stayed silent, those lifeless eyes closed tightly shut, not telling, rain falling on his skin.
“You want to listen to the radio?” asked the taxi driver. I was so absorbed by the old man on the steps that I had forgotten where I was.
“Uh, yeah, sure,” I managed to get out. As he reached out to adjust the radio tuner, I noticed his hands resembled that of a mechanics, callused and discoloured.
“Greens to support NDP in four-year government deal,” the radio host announced through the speakers.
The driver mumbled something under his breath that I couldn’t quite understand. For a second, it seemed as though a wave of relief washed over him. As quickly as this sense of comfort flooded the enclosed space of the cab, it was swept away with a look of deep concern. His hand ran up to his forehead, smoothing out his wrinkles only to scrunch them back together again.
“I wonder what this means for drivers like me,” he murmured. I got the sense that he had something to say, so I pressed him for more.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, a few months ago, the province announced that Uber would be coming to B.C.” he sighed. “I thought the outcome of this election would save us but I think I was wrong.” He opened the window, only slightly, as though to fill the awkward acceptance of defeat in the cab. Wisps of grey hair flailed out of the side of his turban, framing his oval face.
Established in San Francisco, Uber is a location-based application that markets itself as a “peer-to-peer” ride sharing company, wirelessly connecting the customer to their private driver. Launched in 2012, Uber has spent the past five years expanding to over 610 cities in 77 countries across the globe. As the application spread to major Canadian cities such as Toronto and Calgary, taxi advocacies subsequently challenged Uber in court for failing to meet licensed driving regulations. The company’s defense lies in its position as a technology provider, and therefore, legally speaking, taxi coalitions cannot continue to keep Uber out of their jurisdictions.
I know this narrative well. My father had complained about Uber since the outcry from taxi coalitions in different jurisdictions such as Calgary and Toronto. He feared a similar fate for Surrey and subsequently put his taxi licence up for sale. It was too late; there were no buyers. Instead of succumbing to defeat, my father left behind his sense of comfortable familiarity in search of a manual labour job. Now employed in a brick and block plant, he no longer lacks the comfort of job security. But what does this mean for taxicab drivers who are well over the age and ability of manual labourers?
According to a study conducted by Oxford Martin School’s Carl Benedikt Frey, the inclusion of Uber into a new jurisdiction can increase the number of self-employed drivers by 50 per cent. This statistic provides hope for taxicab drivers, as Uber appears to be positively correlated with a rise in available self-driving positions. Although these numbers are certainly interesting, the market isn’t growing by any considerable measure, which means that ride-sharing companies like Uber can still significantly cut the income of licensed drivers by around 10 per cent. What’s more is the ability to significantly devalue taxicab licenses, which were once worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Have a little faith,” I reassured him. “We don’t know what the provincial decision on ride-sharing is quite like yet.” I tilted my head towards him and looked at him out of the corner of my eye. His heavily lined face and sagging skin suggested he would not fare well in a manual labour position.
“No puttar, we do know. Uber is coming. We just don’t know exactly when.”
I felt a tinge of sorrow for the man. He was so old and innocent. He didn’t deserve to have his livelihood snatched away from him. I decided to reveal my father’s experience in hopes that it would provide solace for this man.
“Your father sounds like a hardworking man,” he said.
“He is, eh? He’s spent the last 30 years working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, making just enough to get by. He doesn’t deserve this. None of you do.”
He smiled at my gratitude for his profession. His eyes blurred for a moment. He quickly blinked them clear.
“I’m sorry, beta. I’m getting emotional,” he said as he pulled a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and blew his nose. “We don’t have to talk about this anymore.”
I reassured him that I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to hear his story. With my gentle prompting, I discovered that he had lived a life of struggle and hardship. His name was Dalvir and he was born in the neighbouring village to my mother’s. He came to Canada shortly after starting a family with his wife, Amarjit. Faced with the horrors of the 1984 Sikh genocide, both Dalvir and Amarjit longed for a better life for their child, one free of warfare and inequality.
“Amarjit and I were staying with my cousin in Delhi at the time. We witnessed everything. Official records place the number of Sikh deaths at 2800, 2100 of which occurred in Delhi,” he shook his head slightly. “But in reality, I’ve learned that the actual death toll lies around 8000, 3000 of which occurred in Delhi.”
“I can’t imagine what that must have been like,” I mumbled, while turning to face the window. There was too much grief and sorrow in this man’s face. I couldn’t bear to look at him.
“As soon as I heard of my friend’s uncle, burned alive by a mob in front of his family, I sought refuge in temples, non-profit centres — basically any place that would take me and my family in.” He paused, as though he was overwhelmed by emotions that had been buried for years. “Even when the brutality slowed down, life was never the same. We were all living in a constant state of fear.”
“Wow,” I whispered, completely speechless. In the past few months, I had read and heard more about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots than ever before. Previously, my only knowledge on the matter had been that the massacre followed the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. Although three decades have passed, justice is still being sought after for the victims of the November 1984 riots. That’s why on April 6, the Ontario legislature passed a private member’s motion — introduced by Member Parliament Province Harinder K Malhi — which called the 1984 Sikh massacre in India an act of genocide, something the National Post deemed “a politically explosive label.” Although the National Post claims that Canada-India tension is increasingly building, Canadian high commissioner Nadir Patel says that the relationship between two countries is “far more resilient to be sidetracked by a private member’s resolution.”
“I don’t know what to say…” I struggled to find the words, “that sounds —”
“It sounds horrific! I know. Amarjit and I had no choice but to leave everything behind,” he said with a hint of resentment in his voice. “But now I’ve let my family down. The little money I make now will soon trickle away. I took out a second mortgage to afford my taxi license six years ago, now it is worth virtually nothing,” he regretfully admitted. “I just don’t know…”
Although it is undocumented how many Sikhs came to Canada following the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, many immigrated in search of a new life and to escape religious persecution by the Indian government. As shown by the recent motion by the Ontario legislature, the Canadian Sikh community remains in anguish, struggling to forgive and forget.
Alongside this issue grows the lack of job security amongst Indo-Canadians in Greater Vancouver. The current political impasse in B.C. has left Indo-Canadian cab drivers in a vulnerable position, unsure of their near future. Many of these men will tell you they immigrated to Canada to escape discrimination or simply to enjoy a better life. Unfortunately, now, with the risk of losing their sense of livelihood, the community is at risk of experiencing the same pressure and distress they were faced with when they first chose to immigrate to Canada, albeit in an all new form.
The data appears grim for taxi drivers, but it is evident that B.C. is committed to making a well-thought-out decision on the introduction of ride-hailing services like Uber. Although the concern is not on the inevitable increase in unemployment or loss of income tax revenue, B.C. is dedicated to ensuring insurance and safety regulations will effectively be in place before allowing Uber to operate within the province.
An abrupt brake cut him off after his navigation system chimed that we had arrived at my destination.
“Well, this is me,” I said as I shuffled through my bag to find my wallet.
“No, beta. This one is on me,” he smiled at me gently.
I reached over to pull him into a quick hug and slip a $20 bill into his shirt pocket.
I stood outside my door and watched Dalvir drive down the hill, with his Punjabi music roaring through his speakers. I squinted at his back window, which held a slogan that read: “Thank you for your business.”