Egan: The making of Ottawa's angry cabbie

Taxi drivers are probably the angriest workforce in town and, of all the angry taxi drivers, Roy Noja might be the angriest.

A burly man of 38, he has built a public profile through a series of YouTube videos that show him gathering undercover evidence on Uber drivers and berating an Ottawa bylaw officer, raging about a conceivable ticket in the ByWard Market. It was F-bombs away, a finger-pointing verbal assault about which he is not apologetic.

Imagine then our chipper mayor, Jim Watson — a man who doesn’t badmouth enemies, or make many — comparing Noja and his mates to “thugs and bullies.” Oh my, the things that get under His Worship’s skin.

The exchange says much about the relationship between city hall and its cabbies. Put anger and distrust aside. The elephant in the front seat might be this mutual loss of respect.

Noja, surprisingly, has taken the high road in the verbal battle with the mayor.

“Every person has his own opinion. As the mayor, I don’t think it was appropriate for him to call us that. He’s supposed to be defending us, as we’re licensed by the City of Ottawa,” he responded one afternoon this week.

“At the end of the day, we’re licensed by him, by the City of Ottawa.”

Noja was working the taxi stand outside the Marriott Hotel on Queen Street on a muggy afternoon. Neatly groomed, wearing long shorts and black Nikes, he stood with his arms crossed, unsmiling, in a defiant pose. The other drivers perceived to defer to him.

Driving a taxi is something of a family business, he explained. His grandfather drove a cab in Lebanon. His father, who arrived in Canada in 1975, now drives a cab, as do two of his brothers. He says he rents his plate from a cousin and earned his first taxi licence at age 18. He has three children, 15, eight and five.

Family and cultural links run deeply through the cabbie ranks. When it was put to Noja that, given the terrible conditions, drivers might imagine another line of work, he was indignant, as though this was a smite on the family name.

“What about the guy who has been driving a car for 35 years and is 60 years old? What’s he supposed to do?”

Indeed, when Noja was acquitted in 2007 of disturbing charges that he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman in his taxi — his licence was temporarily suspended — what did he do? Went back to driving a cab.

He and fellow drivers have made a series of videos in which they order a Uber ride and secretly tape the conversation en route to a destination. Pretending to be curious, they ask about insurance, driver training, rates, age of cars — a wide variety of stuff. Law enforcement authorities don’t seem interested in their clandestine evidence-gathering. In fact, the police chief suggested they knock it off.

“The team is working. We’re not going to stop,” responds Noja.

He says quite a lot of new videos will be released in time for Sept. 16, a worldwide day of protest against Uber, the online ride service that is eating into the traditional taxi industry all over the place. “You’ll be shocked,” he says of the new footage. “Oh my God, oh my God.”

Noja revealed something else. Already an at-large elected member of the Blueline union unit, he says he’s considering a run at the presidency. “Too early for that, but everything is under consideration.” Wouldn’t Watson just cringe, if the “thug” went all legit with a title?

But lost in the bickering, the name calling, the questionable tactics, is a central fact: cabbies are getting economically hammered right now, unfairly, in a broken system the city designed, only to have the city ask for patience with its repair job. A planned industry review may be complete by the end of the year. Or not.

Many drivers estimate the drop in income in the 40-per-cent range. I spoke to a cabbie this week who had been working a downtown stand for nine hours only to land three fares. “My biggest fare was $9.” Pulling down $70 to $120 a shift (before costs) is not odd anymore, they say, which puts them underwater. One driver said his insurance alone is $9,000 a year.

Noja says he’s depleted his savings and is now living on credit cards.

So, naturally, the frustration is building. They see the city blitzing Uber drivers (100-plus charges), then a long stretch of nothing, only to to hear corporate Uber will pay the fines. And, to add insult to injury, they hear all this gleeful consumer chatter about the wonders of Uber.

And, to further antagonize them, Watson is offering advice in a labour dispute the city is not party to.

“Stop shooting yourself in the foot. Stop pulling stunts like that undercover video, blockading the Airport Parkway, honking horns steadily at the airport. You’re not winning friends, you’re in fact pushing people over to Uber, which is exactly the opposite of what you need to accomplish.”

But neither, Mr. Mayor, is that a strategy.

The drivers are dying out there, with empty pockets and full tempers. Doing nothing is hardly an option in a labour dispute. Losing the PR war? They aren’t in a PR war. Popularity is politics, not food on the table. Theirs is a battle over money, their very livelihoods, maybe even the survival of the family firm.

And anger is a potent, lasting motive.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email [email protected]

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