The Taxi Driver Who Took On Uber

As the ride-share app lay waste to Montreal’s taxi industry, one cabbie decided to fight back

A taxi and an uber colliding
The Walrus/iStock

The Uber driver wasn’t sure what to do when the Lebanese cowboys ambushed him. After he arrived at his destination, at the Old Port of Montreal, five men clad in cowboy hats, plaid shirts, and bandanas rushed his car and pounded on his window. While the cowboys distracted the driver, his passenger snatched the smartphone from the dashboard bracket and exited the car. He then handed the phone to the posse’s leader, Hassan Kattoua, whose authority was made plain by the plastic star on his vest and the toy pistols on his belt. The costumed lawman pocketed the phone and handed the bewildered driver a receipt printed on paper that had been soaked in tea and burned on the edges with a cigarette lighter. The document read:

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.

This was the autumn of 2015. Uber had been operating illegally in Montreal for about a year. The city’s taxi bureau had issued thousands of dollars in fines and seized more than 200 cars, but the penalties hardly dissuaded Uber’s drivers. Montreal cabbies were furious. “They have turned Quebec into the Wild West,” Kattoua told a journalist covering his cellphone heist. Kattoua turned back to the Uber driver and informed him that, if he wanted his phone returned, he needed to take the receipt to the Montreal Taxi Bureau. After the driver sped away, Kattoua pinned a mock “wanted” poster depicting Montreal Uber manager Jean-Nicolas Guillemette, complete with black hat and villain’s moustache, to a tree. Then he and his scowling deputies posed for a photo.

Kattoua reasoned that, when the Uber driver appeared at the bureau to retrieve his phone, he’d have to admit he’d been driving for Uber and would therefore receive a ticket. But this wasn’t enough for Kattoua. “I wanted to punish him a little bit more,” he told me. He planned to hold on to the phone for three days before bringing it to the bureau. That way the driver would lose a few days’ worth of income. Besides, the delay adhered to the operation’s cowboy aesthetic. “It is as if I sent the phone by horseback,” Kattoua said. “It takes some time.”

Montreal’s real police were not amused. As soon as the story of Kattoua’s ambush appeared in Le Journal de Montréal, the police called him. They ordered him and his accomplices to report to the police station or face arrest. Kattoua told his posse to suit up. When the four cowboys arrived at the station, dressed again in their cowboy costumes, a local television station was waiting. “I regret not spending a bit more on the outfits,” Kattoua told me. “They were all from the dollar store. But I did not know we would be on TV.”

Police officers crowded the station entrance to watch the spectacle. The rest of Kattoua’s posse was terrified. They knew they could lose their work permits if they received criminal records. In the end, though, the police didn’t charge anyone with anything. They simply scolded the men and demanded that Kattoua return the stolen phone. “They told me they knew I wasn’t a criminal,” Kattoua said. “But that was the day I became the Taxi Sheriff.”

Kattoua wasn’t wearing his cowboy costume when we met. With his glasses and trim haircut, he resembled an engineering professor more than he did a Wild West vigilante. As soon as we sat to talk, in a downtown Montreal shopping mall, Kattoua launched into a rehearsed lecture about the evils of Uber and the injustices perpetrated on Montreal’s cabbies by the provincial transport commission. He ranted nonstop for nearly ninety minutes about unenforced transport regulations, the corruption of former Quebec premier Philippe Couillard, the shady issuance of airport permits, and so on. Kattoua ignored all my attempts to steer the conversation toward his own personal history. Kattoua was the driver, after all. Only after telling me everything he thought I should know about Montreal’s taxi industry did he share his origin story.

Kattoua grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. In April 1975, gunmen ambushed a busload of Palestinians in Beirut in apparent retaliation for the attempted assassination of a Maronite Christian Phalangist leader. Clashes between Palestinian Muslims and Phalangists followed, sparking a civil war that would last fifteen years. Many of Kattoua’s friends joined the militia groups. By the time the war ended, in October 1990, between 150,000 and 200,000 people had been killed, most of them civilians. A period of economic crisis followed. Kattoua earned an electronic engineering degree after graduating from high school but had few options. “There was little hope of a better future for a young man like me,” he said.

Kattoua decided to apply for immigration to Quebec. To prepare for his immigration interview, he studied French and sat for medical exams. When the 1994 Quebec provincial election brought the Parti Québécois to power, and with it the promise of a sovereignty referendum, Kattoua worried his immigration hopes were dashed. “The counsellor at the embassy said there was no guarantee my application would be accepted. I went back to Beirut depressed.” Two weeks later, though, he received a call from the embassy and an invitation to an interview where he was handed a brochure titled “Bienvenue au Québec.”

Instead of celebrating, Kattoua recalls, he felt tremendous anxiety. “Your excitement dies because it is the moment things become serious,” he said. “Soon, you will have to leave to the unknown, alone.” He had to sell his car and his cherished motorcycle to pay $10,000 for an immigration visa. And he had to leave his parents and two sisters behind. He flew out of Beirut in 1994. “There is a photo of my dad that day. Anyone could see that he was not happy to see his son leave.”

In his first letter from Montreal to his mother, Kattoua described how the airport bus at Mirabel picked up passengers from the plane, how Canadian toilets flushed automatically, and how “the parking lot at Sears was the size of our neighbourhood in Beirut.” He found work at two different tech companies. Both eventually laid him off. A friend recommended he try driving a taxi. Kattoua balked at first. “In Lebanon, we looked at driving taxi as an inferior kind of job,” he said. But the potential for high earnings, flexibility, and job security eventually coaxed him away from the computer screen and behind the wheel.

Kattoua bought a taxi permit, in 2003, for $160,000. A bank lent him $100,000, he spent $30,000 of his own savings, and he borrowed the rest from his parents, still living in Lebanon. “I left them with no money,” he said. Kattoua worked long hours and made decent money, especially late at night, once Montreal’s bars closed and the Metro stopped running. He sent money to his parents each month and still had enough left over for the occasional beach vacation in Florida or the Bahamas.

Montreal’s taxi industry took a hit in the mid-2000s, when the city introduced car- and bicycle-share options and a new direct bus line to the airport. The business’s lucrative core remained, though. Few Montrealers rode the shared bicycles during winter, most airline travellers would rather take a cab than drag heavy luggage onto a city bus, and late-night drinkers still needed someone to drive them home. “But then Uber came,” Kattoua said.

The Taxi Sheriff immediately declared war. Kattoua’s “Great Uber Phone Robbery” was just the first of many operations he devised. Another involved Kattoua adding his own cell number to the listing for Uber Montreal’s headquarters on Google Maps (the listing included an address but no phone number). He did this over and over again, with multiple Google accounts, until Google’s algorithm finally accepted the change.

Kattoua used the number to mess with Montreal’s outlaw Uber drivers. Any time a driver phoned what they thought was Uber Montreal headquarters—to report a problem with the Uber app, for example—Kattoua would impersonate Uber management. He told some drivers that Uber was folding. “I made so many Uber drivers stop working on a busy Friday night thinking the company is closing and they will not get paid for their trips.” Other times, Kattoua asked drivers for their name, licence number, licence plate, and other personal information. Then he’d pounce. “This is a stunt,” Kattoua would announce. “You are stuck now. I have your name. I have your plate. I have your phone number.” Kattoua told his victims he would send the information to the taxi bureau so their cars would be ticketed and towed. He threatened to report drivers to Revenue Canada and to the social-assistance department at Emploi-Québec. “Most of them were collecting welfare payments,” Kattoua explained.

Disgruntled Uber passengers also started phoning Kattoua. One man told him that his girlfriend had ordered a Mercedes on Uber Select, a premium service that provides luxury cars at a higher rate, but the driver had shown up in a Volkswagen Jetta. Two young women called to complain that their Uber driver had kicked them out of the car on a highway in the middle of the night. These calls further angered Kattoua. Not only was Uber operating illegally and cutting into the earnings of Montreal’s taxi drivers, Kattoua said, it was giving lousy service.

Three weeks passed before Uber Canada grew wise to Kattoua’s scam. They banned Kattoua from the Uber app and removed his cell number from Google Maps. But some of the sheriff’s later operations against Uber lacked the digital elegance of his Google Map hack or the performance artistry of the phone heist. In February 2016, Kattoua summoned an Uber vehicle to the Plaza Hotel in downtown Montreal. When the car arrived, Kattoua and a crew of co-conspirators pelted it with eggs and dumped icing sugar over the windshield and rear window. Police charged three men, Kattoua among them, with harassment and intimidation. The Uber driver, though operating illegally, wasn’t charged with anything. Kattoua represented himself in court. “For me, paying $6,000 to a lawyer to defend me over eggs was ridiculous,” he said. The trial took three days. In the end, the judge agreed to grant Kattoua absolution provided he keep the peace for a year and pay a $500 fine. Kattoua said he’d rather go to prison than pay the fine, but his fellow cabbies, who appreciated his activism, chipped in the money.

Montreal’s police department was responsible for ticketing Uber drivers and seizing their cars. Few made this a priority, so Kattoua devised an operation to shame them into action. To execute it, he needed a new costume. At the time, Montreal police officers had been wearing brightly coloured camouflage pants and red caps instead of their regular uniform as a protest against proposed pension reforms. Kattoua purchased a pair of black-and-grey camo pants and a red baseball cap that he emblazoned with a yellow X crossing out the Uber logo. He bought a black coat, from Winner’s, that resembled an officer’s jacket and pinned a toy sheriff’s badge to his chest. (By then, he’d replaced his plastic star with a silver one.) Though it wasn’t a standard police uniform, most Montrealers would take a man so dressed as a protesting officer.

If police weren’t going to seek out Uber drivers to ticket, Kattoua would deliver them himself. He and an accomplice, an American anti-Uber activist named Larry Frankel, parked their car in front of a police station and called for an Uber. When the car arrived, Kattoua turned on his video camera and shouted at officers in a nearby cruiser to ticket the driver. The Uber driver panicked and sped away. The cruiser switched on its lights and pursued him. Kattoua and Frankel rushed back to their car and tried to follow, but a second cruiser pulled in front and blocked them, thus foiling their plan to record the police response.

It was at this point Frankel noticed that the Uber driver, in his haste, had failed to end the trip on his app. “He was still charging us,” Kattoua said. Kattoua and Frankel didn’t have to follow the police chase; they could follow the driver themselves using the app. They found him parked nearby and rapped on his window. The driver told Kattoua that the police officer hadn’t ticketed him. The real reason for the police chase, Kattoua insists, was to direct the Uber driver away from Kattoua’s camera.

Two days after the incident, Kattoua received a call from Montreal police demanding he turn himself in. His stunt—especially his faux police uniform—had angered the officers. They charged Kattoua with impersonating a police officer, using a badge or uniform article worn by police officers, and intimidating a member of the justice system. Kattoua scoffed at the charges. “I didn’t act like a police officer. I only brought the car to the police station and asked the police to apply the law. They refused,” Kattoua said. “Also, I did not wear a police costume because this is not their official uniform. It is a tricky thing, no?” Kattoua smirked at this. “Third, I did not intimidate a police officer.”

Police fingerprinted Kattoua and questioned him for an hour. They confiscated his camouflage pants, his sheriff’s star, his anti-Uber cap, and his black coat. They gave Kattoua a nylon jumpsuit to wear—“Like Guantanamo,” he said, “only white instead of orange”—then locked him in a jail cell. Later, in a Facebook post, Kattoua wrote that the police had humiliated him. “It was not easy to pass eight hours counting the tiles,” Kattoua wrote, “walking diagonally from side to side, exploring the stainless steel sink for the first time in my life or lying down on a wooden bench using my boots as a pillow.” Police eventually pushed Kattoua’s terms of release through the bars of his cell. He was not to wear clothes similar to police uniforms, he could not interfere with any Uber driver or passenger, and he could not attend any anti-Uber protests. Kattoua could either sign the forms or stay in custody until his court appearance two months later—which, coincidentally, fell on his birthday. Kattoua signed even though he considered the terms illegal.

When police released Kattoua from custody, he called a friend to film him leaving the station. In the video, Kattoua emerges weary but smiling. He is holding his belt and release papers in his hand and is still wearing his police-issued white “bunny suit,” his underwear visible through the thin fabric. Police never returned his clothes, cap, or sheriff’s star. In the video, Kattoua thanks his supporters for inquiring about his state following his brief incarceration and urges them not to be concerned. “Don’t worry, guys,” he says. “We will win.”

They aren’t winning. In the fall of 2016, Quebec’s transport commission granted Uber permission to operate legally under a year-long pilot project. They renewed the project the following year, and again in 2018. Montreal’s traditional cabbies were furious. Like Toronto, Montreal had far more taxis than the population required even before Uber arrived. The commission knew this. Worse, the usual rules didn’t apply to Uber drivers. Cabbies needed a licence to operate. Uber drivers didn’t. The province insisted that new Uber drivers submit to police background checks, just like taxi drivers, but exempted Uber drivers who’d been working before the pilot project. Cabbies paid higher insurance rates and licensing fees than Uber drivers did. They had to dress properly and drive newer cars, which they had to keep clean and well maintained. Uber drivers weren’t beholden to any of these rules.

Uber’s allies, in Montreal and in the provincial government, argued that the ride service was part of the new “sharing economy” and in high demand. Kattoua argues that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is fair.

The Quebec government landed its most devastating blow on the taxi industry in March 2019, when it tabled Bill 17 to reconfigure ride-for-hire businesses in the province. Under the guise of “levelling the playing field,” the bill required all drivers,
traditional cabbies and Uber drivers both, to meet the same standards for licensing, training, and criminal background checks. Taxi drivers could also use a sliding fare scale, like Uber’s, with “surge pricing”—meaning passengers would likely end up paying more for their rides. The bill dispensed with quotas and allowed for unlimited cars-for-hire on the road, regardless of demand. Most dramatically, though, the legislation abolished the need for taxi permits entirely. Kattoua had drained his parents’ savings to buy a permit when he first started driving. His permit had increased in value to $225,000 before Uber arrived. Under the new bill, it would be worthless.

The provincial government allocated $500 million to compensate cabbies for the loss of their permits’ value, with an additional $270 million to be raised over the following five or six years through a ninety-cent royalty on every paid ride. An additional $40 million will be given out for “particular needs and cases.” In all, Quebeckers will pay $814 million to compensate taxi drivers and tidy Uber’s mess. Yet it still won’t cover the industry’s losses. Quebec’s 8,000 permit holders claim their permits have lost $1.3 billion in value since Uber descended on the city. Under the legislation, Kattoua wouldn’t even recover his original investment, much less the almost quarter-million dollars the permit was worth only a few years ago.

In stark contrast to the Taxi Sheriff’s lone-cowboy operations, Montreal’s cabbies demonstrated against Bill 17 en masse in 2019. They staged a daylong strike in March. Hundreds of drivers converged on the National Assembly of Quebec, in Quebec City, while thousands blocked traffic in Montreal. One driver, during a live in-studio interview, said of Quebec premier François Legault, “He has no heart. And he took my heart.” The man then drew a blade and slashed at his own wrists. He held up his bleeding arms to the camera, but the studio technicians cut away before the grisly scene was televised. An ambulance rushed the man to hospital: his injuries weren’t serious and he was soon released, but the incident prompted the cabbies to suspend their demonstrations.

Provincial politicians adopted Bill 17 in October 2019, surprising no one. After years of operating both illegally and under pilot programs, Uber was granted the government’s blessing to operate in Quebec. The province’s taxi industry swiftly launched three class action lawsuits, against the Quebec government and Uber, totalling $1.5 billion.

The Taxi Sheriff vows to keep fighting. He has a new sheriff’s badge—a gold-coloured one he fashioned from a belt buckle. He maintains a Facebook page, called “Cowboys Contre Uber,” whose sepia-toned main photo shows Kattoua and three cowboy colleagues from his first heist as the sheriff. The page includes photos and videos from his various operations, as well as news articles.

Kattoua always smirked when he described his anti-Uber demonstrations to me. I could tell he enjoyed being the enfant terrible of Montreal’s taxi industry. But his Wild West bravado and prankster façade fail to conceal his melancholy. He was among the youngest of all the drivers I’d meet, but he was the most weary. “When you first come to the country, it smells of something. Everything was new. Everything was nice,” Kattoua said. “Now, after all these years, you don’t get to enjoy the city you are living in.” Kattoua shuttles his clients to arts and music festivals he doesn’t have time to attend. He lives downtown, within walking distance of some of Montreal’s most famous nightspots, but lacks the money to enjoy them. “And I’m not in the mood to have fun.”

Pushing cab ravages the body as much as it breaks the heart. Kattoua complains of stomach pains, back problems, and circulation issues in his legs. His eyes ache from the constant reflection of sun off snow on bright winter days and the headlights of oncoming cars at night. “Do you know how many people go blind after finishing in this industry?” he asked. “And there are so many heart attacks because drivers work hard hours.”

Of course, Uber cannot be blamed for cabbies’ ill health, which long predates the app’s appearance on city streets. The difference is that drivers like Kattoua now find reduced reward for these risks. They work longer hours to earn less and less. “When Uber came, our lives crashed. Not just our jobs. Our lives crashed,” Kattoua said. He regrets getting into the business in the first place. The money he spent on his taxi licence could have been invested elsewhere. “I could’ve bought a Tim Hortons,” he said. “I could’ve bought a house in Laval for the same money. It would be worth $500,000 now. What did I do? I ruined my life.”

Copyright © Marcello Di Cintio, 2021. Reprinted with permission from Biblioasis.

Marcello Di Cintio
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of five books, including Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers (2021), which was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year.