It was bound to happen. I knew that I would eventually become a victim of theft while living here in Montréal because just about everyone in the city gets robbed at one point. But what does this say about Montréal’s crime trends, culture, and urban living?
Virtually everyone I have known that have, or are, living in this beautiful city has been robbed. That includes stolen cars, stolen electronics, stolen wallets, and home invasions. This is in contrast to the life I lived growing up and working in the Toronto suburbs and downtown neighbourhoods. I actually don’t know anyone who has been a victim of personal (non-business) theft in Toronto. But as soon as I moved here to Montréal a few years back, I knew right away that the crime trends in this city were different.
Mind you, I’m not complaining about the city. I love living in Montréal, and for all the obstacles and grievances I have as an allophone and visible minority, there in return are a handful of things I have bitched about while living in Toronto. The crime trends are different between the two cities, and though I always felt quite safe living in Toronto — to be fair, while I have always resided in pretty safe neighbourhoods Toronto in general is super safe — I knew that Toronto was perceived by many non-residents as being too big, too cold, too violent, too crowded, and too dangerous. Well, Toronto may be most of these things, but it is definitely not violent or dangerous. If you are part of a gang or live in one of the poorest Toronto neighbourhoods, then yes, you may become a victim of gun crimes. And for the rest of Torontonians there is a small chance you may accidentally get in the way of these gang wars or become a random victim of crime, but these are rare and mainly segregated to certain districts, distant from the middle- and upper-class population.
In Montréal, gang wars and their violent outcomes seem to be even more isolated within the criminal community. So if you are not in a biker gang or some other criminal syndicate, you don’t need to worry about getting shot or getting in the way of gunfire. However, if your business doesn’t pay up to these mobsters, expect your store to get firebombed in the middle of the night, and this seems to happen at an alarming frequency here in the city. Arson isn’t isolated to commercial properties, however, as for some reason many residences in Montréal seem to go up in flames all the time. Never did I have a friend or acquaintance become a victim of arson in Toronto, but here I know a handful of people who narrowly escaped their apartments engulfed in flames, knapsack in hand, and rescued from their balconies by the Montréal Fire Department.
Other than arson, the type of crime that seems to affect all Montréalers regardless of social class is theft and robbery. When I first moved to Montréal I lived in the McGill Ghetto, and I always saw cars with their windows smashed in order for the thieves to ransack items from inside the car. I knew a guy who, within the first month of moving to the city, got pickpocketed. A friend, after living here for less than one year and was living her last month in the city, had her bag stolen along with her laptop (photos, files and all) and wallet which were retrieved from her feet at a Tim Horton’s. A couple’s condo was looted after the thieves forced their way through the front door with crowbars. And another guy had his apartment robbed so many times by the addicts in his gentrifying neighbourhood, he stored a baseball bat in his closet in addition to finally installing an alarm system (which apparently does nothing). In my case, I was studying at my favourite café during a quiet time of the day when two people — one whom was clearly under the influence of some substance — took my wallet in addition to items from the café so carefully, I only noticed my missing belongings when Visa called me to tell me that the thieves were using my credit card on a shopping spree.
As I said, this was bound to happen to me so I actually was quite well prepared. I already had colour photocopies of all my identification cards, and had already memorized my social insurance and bank account numbers. Nevertheless, it pissed me off that not only did the thieves take cash and other wallet items and use my credit card, but that I had to take the time and money to replace all these cards and take further action to prevent additional fraud. I was also mad at myself because, when I saw the couple coming in and out of the café, and hanging out on the street watching me, I had a bad feeling about them but I didn’t trust my instincts. I am usually extremely prudent about these kinds of things — fine, I’m anal, I mean, my backup colour photocopies of my ID cards made the bank teller laugh — but I let myself relax that day because I was comfortable at that café and in my very family-friendly neighbourhood.
However, this incident did make me think about the reasons why I, and many others, didn’t experience theft while living in a big city like Toronto. For one thing, living in Toronto is outrageously expensive (OK, Vancouverites, not as much as you guys, but still). Therefore, many of the Toronto neighbourhoods are homogenous in terms of the social classes of which the residents inhabit. Before I left Toronto, I lived in the ritzy neighbourhood of Yorkville in a very non-ritzy apartment building, and amongst many University of Toronto student families. Sure, you saw homeless and other marginalized people — I even witnessed a guy shooting heroin behind my building — and I saw thieves running out of designer stores with expensive bags in hand, tumbling to the ground by beefy store security guards. However, crime to individuals in Toronto rarely seemed to touch the middle class and above. And one of the reasons why I believe this is so is due to the fact that the marginalized did not have a permanent place of residences amongst the non-poor. The homeless seemed to camp out in their respective areas and while they may show up in the same street corner every day, these were temporary set ups and these people were much too ill to be doing anything but begging on the streets.
Canada, in general, is very safe and we don’t have particularly high rates of theft and robbery amongst the general public especially when compared to some European countries. Canada’s rate of robbery per 100,000 population was 89.1 in 2010; Ontario holds the rate of 81.5 and Québec 87.6. In comparison, Italy’s rate is 122 per 100,000 population, which translates to 74,130 robberies in 2007 for its 60.4 million population. I remember backpacking through Europe and having to keep an hawk eye on all my belongings, particularly in Rome and Barcelona where it seemed that the would-be thieves were quite organized and targeted tourists with expertise. Meanwhile, here in Canada and particularly in Montréal it seems that the theft is often committed by poor addicts who want your cash for the sole purpose a quick fix.
In my neighbourhood here in Montréal, we have the same panhandlers coming to the same spot every day, but they are not homeless. I realized that many of these marginalized people actually had a place called home right in my neighbourhood, living amongst the students, young families, and old retirees. I would characterize my neighbourhood as solidly middle class, but the fact is, living in the province of Québec and the city of Montréal for that matter, is very cheap. My Québecois friends whom never lived outside of the province cannot believe how expensive rent and real estate is in Toronto in comparison to living in Montréal. This is an outcome of the political culture of Québec; if you are one of those people who thinks that Canada is “too socialist” for you, you would probably find Québec akin to a communist state. Therefore, with rents so unbelievably cheap, many “middle class” neighbourhoods are actually composed of a mix of different social classes including many that are unemployed, on disability, or disenfranchised. I lived in various neighbourhoods in the city centre of Toronto and its suburbs, and I would say that this mix of social classes in one neighbourhood is almost unheard of in the Ontario capital.
This segregation — in Toronto, and lack of segregation in Montréal — is interesting, and it makes me think about city planning and urban living. I definitely do believe that the segregation and isolation of different social classes is harmful, but I suspect that my theft incident is at least partially tied to the fact that many Montréal neighbourhoods contain a wide variety of social classes. And the people who robbed me, and that I’ve witnessed robbing others (yes, I have seen this a couple times here in Montréal), are usually the poor and addicted, or the young and reckless. The cost of living here is incredibly economical, so different people of varying social classes can live together in the same neighbourhood. I feel that this partly explains why everyone I know has been a victim of these petty crimes throughout the city because, unlike Toronto, the poor and disenfranchised are not isolated to one community away from the more affluent population. That, and other complex factors including the fact that this city has a long, established culture of theft. Remember the part in that Michael Moore movie, Bowling for Columbine, when Moore just walks up to houses in Toronto and opens their door, confirming that no one locks their front doors in Toronto? Well, that doesn’t happen here in Montréal.
Is this lack of segregation in Montréal a problem? In spite of what happened to me and others, generally I don’t believe it is. Montréal is a very safe city, and if you’re a victim of a crime, it is often non-violent and minor compared to something like murder. That is, as long as you survive the robbery as well as arson, and don’t get tangled up with the mob. This option is very much welcome in comparison to all the gun violence happening right now in Chicago, or even Winnipeg here in Canada, the murder capital of the country. In general, Canada is not a country with super high rates of crimes, especially violent ones, and is generally very peaceful and safe. Of course, segregation of the poor does exist here in Montréal — see St. Henri, North Montréal, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, and Parc Extension — but I would argue that its severity, in contrast to that of Toronto, is not as defined to specific neighbourhoods. That’s why low-income artists and musicians, the heart of the culture in the city, and students like me can live on very little here and even make neighbourhoods super trendy (see the Mile End and the Plateau). Living in a community where people are of varying social classes may mean little for those that are of the middle classes, but for the poor, it means a life out of isolation, a more positive sense of community, and the ability to access some of the same benefits as those of their more affluent neighbours — great schools, beautiful parks, and a safe residence.
As much I hated getting robbed, as I told my friends, it could have been worse. If my computer with my USB key full of all my school material had been stolen, I probably would be too fumed even now, a week later, to write a rational post about theft. While my anger has subsided (though it will forever me immortalized in my rage-filled photo for my new driver’s license), I still do feel a bit paranoid about the fact that the thieves have my social insurance number, multiple pictures of me from my ID cards, as well as my home address. I mean, as an Asian Canadian living in Montréal, I figure the best they could do if they really wanted to use my cards is for human trafficking since there really aren’t many Asians in my neighbourhood or even this city for that matter. And yes, I have done all the precautionary actions to further prevent future instances of fraud which I will outline in another post. But I suspect that the thieves really just wanted to use my cash and credit card for things that of immediate gratification, so I doubt (or hope) they will come after me in my apartment or try to ship some Asian females to Canada.
And as of right now, I am still waiting for my replacement cards after having to spend many hours in line ups and calls, and dollars of administration fees. Am I still annoyed? Yeah, I admit I still am. But as I said, it was bound to happen to me and it could have been worse. And though I am a student now, I am privileged enough to be currently attending an educational institution and have the ability to pay my bills on time. I may be considered a low income student at the present, but my situation is temporary unlike that of the thieves, whom are most likely to remain in poverty. All that said, do I still love living in Montréal? Most definitely. And with my recent run-in with theft, I guess that makes me a true citizen of the city.
Tips on what to do if your wallet is stolen and/or you are a victim of fraud.