[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When Uber first began arriving in Canadian cities, in many cases, before it was legal taxi, drivers were nervous. And then very quickly after seeing Uber’s low rates and lack of regulation up close, that nervousness vanished. It was replaced by anger. And you may remember some of the demonstrations.
News Clip: Hundreds of Montreal taxi drivers gathered in protest this morning against Uber.
News Clip 2: Because this is against the law. If I don’t pay a fine I’m going to get seized. These guys that come out of nowhere, they come out of a cell phone and they are allowed to not obey law.
News Clip 3: You know what the government going to do? There will be no close, there will be no money.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It soon became clear though, that the battle against ride sharing was close to unwinnable. It became clear that no amount of protests or lobbying or begging various governments to protect the [00:01:00] taxi industry would ever send Uber packing. So the battle turned to what could still be won: regulations on Uber, fewer regulations on taxis.
For most cab drivers, it turned from a fight to save their industry into a fight to salvage what they could. You will notice that I said most cab drivers because there was one man for whom the war against Uber was personal. One man who saw the ride sharing service breaking the law, and saw the police refusing to act. And so he acted.
This is the story of Montreal’s Taxi Sheriff.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Marcello Di Cintio is the author of five books, including his latest, which includes the story [00:02:00] we’re discussing today. It’s called Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers. Hello, Marcello.
Marcello Di Cintio: Hello!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Could you maybe zoom out a bit and kind of explain the dynamic, uh, around the time we’re beginning here with taxi versus Uber in Montreal?
Marcello Di Cintio: Sure. So th- this is back before, before Uber was operating legally. In Montreal, Uber was operating illegally. It was operating against the rules against the Taxi Bureau’s rules. And so, uh, the Taxi Bureau was, was ticketing Uber drivers, uh, because they weren’t allowed to be operating at that time in Montreal.
And although they were ticketing drivers and although they were, you know, they were, they were trying to enforce these rules, it wasn’t working very well. The Uber drivers were still operating pretty freely in Montreal at the time. And of course this made the traditional taxi drivers in Montreal furious.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And so into this comes a taxi driver named Hassan Kattoua. Who is he?
Marcello Di Cintio: Hassan Kattoua is one of the most, [00:03:00] I love Hassan Kattoua. Hassan Kattoua is a Beirut-born cabby who, you know, had been driving, driving taxi in Montreal for a number of years and saw the arrival of Uber as a, as a terrible injustice, uh, that this was a, uh, company that was stealing business from him and his other cabby colleagues. And, uh, he was furious that the, that the province and the municipality were not doing enough, uh, to stop, uh, Uber from operating in Montreal. And so he decided to take things into his own hands.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And when you say take things into his own hands, you mean like incredibly literally. So tell me how it begins. Like, how did, first of all, did he tell you where he got this idea to do it and how he got started?
Marcello Di Cintio: If, if I remember correctly, what, what Hassan was was realizing was that allowing Uber to operate outside of the law was, was almost like it was as [00:04:00] if taxi industry was like the wild west where the laws didn’t matter, right. And so he figured what he would do is take on that idea of the wild west. And so his first kind of operation against Uber, he had a group of, he had a posse of fellow cabbies who were helping him out, all the, all these Lebanese guys. And they all dressed up as cowboys, you know, with, with like dollar store costumes, uh, plastic guns, and cowboy hats, and bandanas around their necks.
And so th- so this is what they did. They had one of their, one of their posse who was not dressed as a cowboy, ordered an Uber, and, uh, and asked to be dropped off at this certain point. And when, when the, when the car stopped all these cowboys kind of surrounded the car to distract the driver. And while they were doing that, the passenger who was in on the, in, on the scheme snatches the guy’s cell phone off of the dashboard bracket and then steals it and hands it over to [00:05:00] Hassan. Hassan was clearly the sheriff of this posse, he had the plastic star on his vest. And, um, they handed, they handed the driver, uh, what Hassan called the receipt and he had done it old timey, Western style, right. He had he’d soaked this paper in tea and then singed the edges with a cigarette lighter to give it this, this old timey wild west look.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do you have that note? Can you read it to us?
Marcello Di Cintio: Yes. The note said, “We have seized the machine that you are using as a weapon for your outlaw activity that is impoverishing drivers in towns and cities. You will retrieve your weapon as soon as the governor of the province and or his minister outlaw and ban the illegal activities you are engaged in, and the province returns to the rule of law that it is famous for.”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: On the one hand, that sounds awesome and cool. On the other hand, that poor like, regular Uber driver who didn’t ask for this.
Marcello Di Cintio: Well, I mean, w- what Hassan would say is that, [00:06:00] that Uber driver was operating illegally. That was not, that was before Uber was allowed to operate. So, so he was in fact an outlaw.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what happened after that stunt? Like, did the police get involved? This sounds like something that wouldn’t fly under the radar for too long.
Marcello Di Cintio: No it sure didn’t. So what happened was, uh, the driver, the Uber driver, the bewildered Uber driver eventually drove away and, uh, uh, Hassan and his posse were- were, they posed for a photo, there was a, there was a newspaper journalist, photo journalist there took a picture of them, all kind of scowling in their, in their cowboy costumes. And he had, Hassan had made a mock wanted poster depicting the Montreal Uber manager, uh, and, uh, with a black hat and a black mustache, and he pinned that to a tree.
And then, uh, he, his idea was that the guy who wanted his phone back, he’d have to go to the Taxi Bureau to pick it up. And Hassan reasoned that when he did so, he would essentially be admitting to working illegally and [00:07:00] he would get ticketed or fined or something, right?
But Hassan, that wasn’t enough for Hassan. He didn’t, he didn’t bring the phone back to the, to the bureau right away. He wanted to wait three days just so the guy had lost a little bit of business before he got his phone back. And besides, Hassan told me, he says it was like the wild west. It was, things are slower. It was as if I was sending back the phone on horseback, it takes a little bit of time.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Marcello Di Cintio: Um, but that was his, that was his scheme. But as soon as the police found out about this, you know, they, they summoned Hassan and his, and his cowboy crew to the police station to return the phone. And, uh, uh, Hassan called his journalist friends again to come in and cover this event. And he got all the, he got all the drivers to dress up in their dollar store, cowboy outfits, uh, and, and go down to the, to the, to the station.
Uh, Hassan told me, you know, he’s like, “You know, I wish, I really wish I would have spent more on those costumes. I didn’t realize where we were going to be on television that day.”
[00:08:00] So when he shows up to the, he shows up to the station, he gives back the phone. Some of the guys were worried they were going to be the, uh, arrested or charged with something. And they weren’t, they were just kind of scolded and, and were let go. And, uh, you know, Hassan said, “Nothing really happened, but that was the day I became the Taxi Sheriff.” And, uh, so began his is long, uh, a battle against Uber in Montreal.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’ll get to kind of the culmination of that battle in a few minutes, but maybe describe, um, because I know you did a lot of work on this for the book. Describe some of the other things that he was doing around this time and also like, what did Uber do? Like, they’re putting up pictures of their employees on, on trees. Like how did they respond?
Marcello Di Cintio: Well again, because I’m not sure exactly how Uber responded to that in that initial, uh, operation. I mean, Uber was operating illegally, the drivers shouldn’t have been doing anything. So they weren’t, they didn’t really have a legal leg to stand on at that point. But Hassan had a few other, a few other operations, uh, as well. [00:09:00] Um, and some were not as elegant. He one time summoned a Uber driver to, uh, I believe to a hotel and then him and his cohort in, uh, pelted, uh, the car with eggs and flour. And then, he was then charged for like vandalism for something like that. He was charged for that occasion.
But one of my favourite things that he had done, and again, this is all, this is all before Uber became legal. Hassan had discovered Uber headquarters was on Google Maps, but he noticed that the headquarters did not have a phone number associated with it on Google Maps. So Hassan kept recommending changes to the listing on Google Maps and adding his own phone number as the Uber headquarters phone number. He did it enough times that Google Maps accepted Hassan’s cell phone as Uber headquarters’ phone number.
So now what happened, every time anyone called, uh, Uber headquarters, they would get [00:10:00] Hassan and Hassan would, would, would like troll them. And most of the people who called were, uh, Uber drivers that were having some problem with the app say, and so Hassan would start collecting their information, asking the- for the driver’s license and their name and all this sort of stuff. And the, and the drivers would just would volunteer it. And, uh, at the end of the conversation, Hassan would would say, “Aha, I caught you. You shouldn’t be working, you’re working illegally. I’m gonna report you to the, to the authorities.” And he would, he would record all of these calls.
Um, sometimes when, when a driver would call Uber, or Hassan would tell them that, uh, Uber was going out of business and they should stop driving and they’re not gonna get paid. And he’s trying to get people to stop, the drivers to stop driving. And occasionally he would get calls from Uber passengers who were calling to complain about their service that they had gotten.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Marcello Di Cintio: And so Hassan would record all of these conversations too. And so it infuriated even more that not only was, were these Uber drivers stealing his business, but [00:11:00] they’re there giving lousy service at the same time.
Eventually Uber caught on to this and, uh, and Hassan’s, Hassan’s friends were like, listen, you’re taking on a big, you know, tech company, you know, they’re, they’re, they’re gonna, they’re gonna sue the pants off you if they find out. But Hassan wasn’t worried. He’s like, listen, you know, this giant tech company is being hacked by some cab driver with a cell phone? There’s no way they’re going to make a big deal out of this, cause it’s embarrassing for them that they, they, they got, they got fooled by, by me.
And it turns out he was right. You know, he eventually got the, they knocked his phone number off the listing, and he’s been banned from having a, uh, Uber app on his phone. But, uh, there was no other, there’s no other consequences for, for the Taxi Sheriff at that point.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What was the Taxi Sheriff’s end goal, um, with all of this? To like single-handedly chase Uber out of town? To raise awareness for a campaign? Like what was he really trying to do?
Marcello Di Cintio: You know, Hassan’s actions against Uber are, [00:12:00] and his, uh, grievances against the company are the same with a lot of cab drivers around Canada. And it’s not that they, that they wanted to kick the company out, you know, that it’s not that they didn’t want the competition. It was that the rules were, were not the same. What it took to be a cab driver to drive taxi was far more onerous than it, than it was to, to, to drive Uber. So it was, it was not a level playing field. You know, all, all the regulations that the traditional taxi drivers had to follow about the age of their car or the cleanliness of their car, the kind of license they needed, the kind of insurance they needed, all of these things, vehicle inspections, all of these things were, were either nonexistent or much, much less for Uber drivers. This is again, this is the case across North America, maybe, maybe worldwide. So his grievances were not against Uber per se, but, uh, in the case of, in Montreal against the province, that was the transport commission that was allowing this to happen.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So in his mind, he was [00:13:00] going to raise awareness and hope the city would change the rules?
Marcello Di Cintio: He hoped the cities, the city would, it wasn’t this, in Quebec I believe it’s the province who handles this sort of stuff.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Marcello Di Cintio: But he wanted the, the rules to be applied equally across the board, whether you’re driving an Uber or Lyft or traditional taxi, everyone should be following the same rules. That was his, that was his, uh, uh, main goal.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And meanwhile, Uber is still technically illegal at this point. And so he’s-
Marcello Di Cintio: At that point, it was.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah, so he’s, he wants the police to enforce the law, but they won’t, right?
Marcello Di Cintio: Or that, or that, or they did, they, they didn’t very often or, you know, they, or they, they didn’t, they didn’t, uh, um, you know, send enough, it wasn’t a priority for the police to enforce these rules.
He had another, Hassan had a really good analogy that he kind of worked into another stunt as well. Was he, he said to me, “Imagine, uh, you, you own a depanneur. You know, you, you sell [00:14:00] snacks and beer and wine. Um, and then some guy is allowed to sit in front of your shop with a cooler full of beer and sell it at a discounted price.”
He says that’s what’s, that’s what’s happening with Uber and these other, uh, app based ride services right? They’re, they’re allowed to, to operate at a, at a lower rate offering the same product, you know, and still in the business in a way. So, yeah, just imagine if you were the, if you were the depanneur owner, you have to pay your rent, you have to pay your staff. You have to, you know, keep everything stocked up. Meanwhile, this guy is selling discounted beer out of a cooler on the sidewalk and, and the idea that Uber should exist because people want it is not a good enough reason, you know, according to Hassan. People would also want to be able to buy cold beer for cheap in front of that, you know, out of a cooler in front of the depanneur instead of going in and paying more. So, so what, what the customer wants, shouldn’t be how, why the rules are broken.
And so, so what [00:15:00] Hassan did, he took this analogy one step further, and he called, he started what he called his “taxipanneur”. And so he bought a bunch of snacks, uh, and, and, and stuffed them into his cab, like under the, under the, under the visors and in the glove box.
And some, you had a little cooler with ice that he had soft drinks and, uh, he printed up a menu where he was selling all this stuff out of his cab. And, uh, he was going to get, he’s trying to get a license for a beer and wine also that he wanted to sell. And he was going to, he was going to try to sell cigarettes.
And, um, he said too, he says, he said he didn’t, he didn’t put the prices for the, uh, beer and wine, because he was going to do just like Uber. He was going to charge more for those things when the bars shut down, he says he called it surge pricing, you know, in the same way that the, the, the, you know, it takes, it costs more money to take an Uber when, when the demand is higher.
And so he advertised his taxipanneur. And he knew that the police were going to shut him down. And as [00:16:00] soon as they found out about it, they did. And that was the point he was trying to make is like, why, why is Uber allowed to, to, uh, uh, offer a service at an unfair, at an unfair advantage? And I’m not. You know, what’s the difference between me selling snacks and beer and wine out of my cab as, as the taxipanneur.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right. Well tell me, um, about when this all came to a head, uh, tell me about the quote unquote, police chase.
Marcello Di Cintio: Oh, so in another operation, and this is the operation that Hassan got the most trouble for, at least, at least up until that time, is that he needed another costume for this other idea that he had. So he dressed up in the same uniforms that uh, that Montreal’s police officers were wearing, uh, in protest of, I believe they were having some sort of union or pay dispute. And so Quebec, uh, police officers were wearing camouflage pants and black, uh, black coats at, in, in, in protest.
So [00:17:00] what Hassan does he, is he dressed like this. He dressed like a protesting Montreal police officer. And him and an accomplice called a Uber to come to pick them up in front of a police station. The whole point he was trying to make was if the police aren’t going to go after Uber, we’re going to deliver Uber to the police. And so he was dressed in his, in his, you know, faux police costume, called the, uh, uh, Uber driver over. And as soon as he arrived, he called the police out of the, out of the building and told them to go and arrest this, this driver who then sped off, right.
Uh, Hassan and his buddy tried to go after them, and a police officer also went after them too. And, and, and what ended up happening was the, the police stopped Hassan and his accomplice from chasing down this driver. They kind of, they kind of pulled them over and wouldn’t let him, wouldn’t let him pursue. Um, and then Hassan had found out that the, the driver, the Uber driver was [00:18:00] never ticketed at all.
So a couple of days after the incident Hassan received a call from the police demanding that he turn himself in and they charged him with, uh, impersonating a police officer, using a badge or a uniform article worn by police officers, and intimidating a member of the justice system. And Hassan scoffed at all these charges. He said he didn’t act like a police officer, he was just wearing, he just, he just called the, the, the driver to the station and it wasn’t really a police costume, you know, it was just camouflage pants. I mean, he knew that he would be, he would be mistaken for a police officer, but, you know, in reality, wasn’t, it wasn’t an officer’s uniform.
As for the intimidation of a police officer, he thought that was ridiculous too, all he did was kind of shout his case. But either, in, in anyway, he spent the night in prison, uh, uh, Hassan did. They took away his, his, his full police outfit, gave him, uh, you know, uh, a white jumpsuit kind of like, Hassan compared it to like in Guantanamo Bay [00:19:00] except, uh, except white instead of, instead of orange.
And they kept him overnight and before releasing him with under conditions that he, you know, he, he, he doesn’t, he doesn’t attend protests, or you know, essentially, if he starts to behave himself, they th they let him go. And so that was, that was the night that, that, that the taxi sheriff ended up spending behind bars for his, for his stunts.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Was that enough for him? Um, Is he still in this, this lifestyle today? Like that landscape has changed, right? As you mentioned earlier, Uber is, Uber is legal now. So you know, what happened to him?
Marcello Di Cintio: Hassan kept, kept his fight going against, uh, the Transport Commission. He also, he also ran for a position on the Taxi Bureau itself. He tried, you know, he was trying to do everything he could do to, uh, to, uh, kind of level the playing field. Eventually, as you know, Uber became legalized in Quebec and, uh, it was work- now working within the, within the law. Uh, rules were changed for taxi drivers across the board, uh, which reduced the value of his, the taxi license that he [00:20:00] purchased when he first started, it was now was now useless. It was now worthless because no one needed one anymore. You know, Hassan started driving someone else’s cab, he couldn’t, he couldn’t afford a new, a new car, which the rules demanded.
And then the pandemic hit. You know business collapsed as it did everywhere for cab drivers. Um, he was, he had been doing some airport runs, but when there’s no flow, when there’s no flights, there’s no business.
And he got sick and he got sick with what probably was COVID. And so he stopped driving cab. Uh, he went on the CERB for a little bit, he’s told me. And, uh, he finally quit. He finally, he never went back to driving cab. So Hassan, you know, the Taxi Sheriff, is now selling, uh, televisions and electronics in a, in a little shop in Montreal. You know, he lost that, that fight that he had been, he’d been waging against both Uber and the, and the forces that allow Uber to operate. He lost that battle.
He’s, he’s sad. He’s he still has his, [00:21:00] uh, his, his tin star, uh, his Sheriff’s, his Sheriff’s badge, he still keeps as, as a souvenir. Um, but he’s, he’s, he, he no longer drives cab in Montreal.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s such a sad ending. Is he at least remembered, um, as kind of a legendary tale amongst cabbies in Montreal?
Marcello Di Cintio: I believe that he is. I believe that everyone, everyone in the industry knows, uh, knows Hassan Kattoua. They know about the Taxi Sheriff. However, they didn’t always support them in the ways that he needed to be supported, right? Like a lot of these operations that he would do, uh, people were afraid. People were afraid of getting arrested. People were afraid of getting in trouble. People, people were afraid of losing their licenses. And so he, he often felt really alone in this campaign against Uber and, and, and the government.
Um, and, and I think he’s, he’s resentful sometimes about, about how he could have had some more support from his, you know, his taxi-driving colleagues than he actually got.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Forgive me, but he needed some taxi deputies.
Marcello Di Cintio: He needed some deputies. And, you know, the last time I talked to him for the book, he, uh, [00:22:00] he was saying, how starting to drive cab was the biggest mistake that he had made. He was saying that he could have invested and bought a Tim Horton’s, you know, franchise a Tim Horton’s and he would, he would have made more money than that. He could have bought a house that would have, would have increased in value and, and as well, like he, he considered it to be the biggest mistake. He made in his life was ever starting to drive cab.
And it was very sad because I think there was a part of him that enjoyed the work, there was, it was certainly a part of them that enjoyed the battle. Like when he was explaining these, these, uh, operations to me, he was just giddy with his, with his own, at his own cleverness. Um, and it was sad to see him hang up that badge and to stop driving.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s probably, um, aside from the Taxi Sheriff thing, like it’s probably a sadly familiar tale amongst people who were driving cab when Uber came along.
Marcello Di Cintio: Yes. Um, a lot of drivers that I spoke to for this book said to me that they expect the traditional taxi industry to be gone within five years. Now I don’t know if that’s true. Um, but they really feel they’re at the [00:23:00] end of, they’re at the edge of the cliff. This is no, this will no longer be a viable career for anybody anymore. That’s, that’s the fear. Again, I’m not sure about that, but, uh, these drivers don’t see a future.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, I’m excited to read their stories and the rest of the book. Thanks again for joining us, Marcello.
Marcello Di Cintio: Well thanks for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Marcello Di Cintio is the author of Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers. That was The Big Story, for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Of course you can email us anytime, thebigstorypodcast, all one word and all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And of course we are wherever you get your podcasts. On Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify, on your favourite smart speaker. All you have to do is ask it to play The Big Story podcast.
Stefanie Phillips, Claire Brassard, and Ryan Clarke [00:24:00] produce The Big Story, Joseph Fish joins us this week as an Associate Producer. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, thanks for listening. Have a safe, long weekend and we’ll talk on Tuesday.
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