Passengers are wielding pepper spray more often in Montreal's Metro system, forcing the shutdown of Metro lines and the evacuation of trains and stations to allow for the emergency ventilation of the network.
In 2022, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) recorded at least 20 incidents where chemical irritants such as pepper spray were detected, two of which resulted in a police intervention.
That's up from four to six incidents a year between 2018 and 2021, based on numbers CBC News obtained through an access to information request.
So far in 2023, there have already been a few pepper spray incidents in the Metro — including one during the morning rush hour on Valentine's Day that brought several lines to a halt.
Data released by the STM omits details about what led to the incident, but the pepper spray appears to have been released by passengers, as STM special constables do not carry it.
When an inflammatory agent like pepper spray is released in someone's face or even in their vicinity, it causes the victim's eyes, nose and throat to burn and, in some cases, makes it difficult for them to breathe.
The STM says it has protocols to help clear the air of a sprayed irritant and ventilate the area quickly, but those steps involve interrupting service, said STM spokesperson Philippe Déry.
Metro tunnels are connected and share a ventilation system. To prevent the vapour cloud from spreading, the STM has no choice but to stop the trains until the underground network is aired out.
Last year, the average service disruption caused by the release of pepper spray-like substances was about 30 minutes, but after an interruption of that length, it can take several trainloads of passengers to get the system running normally again and get people on their way.
Prank or weapon?
Patrick Makariak caught the tail end of a pepper spray incident last January at Berri-UQAM station — one of the Metro's main downtown hubs. He didn't see the person who released the substance, but the leftover residue in the air caused his eyes to burn for about 10 minutes.
"The STM — I will give them credit, they did very good in communicating, telling us to evacuate the station right away," said Makariak. He said the announcement was made in both French and English.
Makariak, who has a Youtube channel called Sky of the Universe in which he regularly posts transit videos, is familiar with the codes the STM uses in different emergency situations. He said he's heard the code for a pepper spray incident more often lately.
"I don't know if it's people that are doing it as a prank, or sometimes, from what I've heard, it's a conflict between people, and they use it as a weapon or self-defence," said Makariak. "But yeah, it's definitely becoming more of a problem."
"When they cut the service, it's a big chunk of the lines — sometimes the whole line. It's not just one station. Usually, it's a cascade effect," said Makariak.
It's illegal to carry pepper spray in Canada.
But do a quick internet search and you will find similar chemical irritants such as bear spray or dog repellent which can be easily bought online or at your local outdoor retailer.
These repellents are a type of pepper spray containing varying quantities of capsaicin — the active ingredient found in chile peppers.
Those easily available sprays are intended to be used by hikers and campers in the back country, but a former Montreal police officer, George Manoli, said his clients frequently ask him about using them for personal safety.
Manoli, who teaches self-defence, conducts classes for about 100 people a month.
"Out of those, I'd say at least 90 per cent inquire about pepper spray," said Manoli.
Most of his clients are women who often feel insecure about travelling alone.
Manoli teaches a variety of skills to ward off a potential attacker, but some people prefer the idea of disabling their attacker without having to touch them. He does not show clients how to use pepper spray, but does inform them about how it works.
"You need to understand that it cannot be a crutch," said Manoli. "Once it becomes a crutch, in other words, you feel vulnerable without it, then we have a problem, right?"
Pepper spray is also easy to mishandle.
There's an on/off button on the top of the container, which can be accidentally flipped on if the handler is not careful. Even a small spurt of a capsaicin-based spray is incredibly disruptive, especially in a enclosed space like the Metro, said Manoli.
"You have to clear the area. You have to get out where there's fresh air, because it will immediately affect you," said Manoli. "There's no way around it."
Manoli doesn't discourage people from carrying bear spray or dog repellent, but he warns them it's a prohibited weapon.
If they are caught, Manoli tells them, the product will be confiscated, and they may get a ticket or face criminal charges.
In January 2019, pepper spray was discharged during a fight between two men on the Metro platform at Champ-de-Mars, near Montreal's city hall. A 38-year-old man was later arrested and slapped with half a dozen charges, including possession of a prohibited weapon and armed assault.
The Montreal police service (SPVM) declined an interview and could not say if police are seeing an increase in pepper spray usage in general.
If an irritant is detected in the Metro system, police are there to help the STM evacuate the station, said the SPVM said in an unsigned email.
"We work in close collaboration with the STM's Direction sûreté et contrôle to deploy resources according to the issues of crime, mischief and incivility," it said, "in order to ensure the safety of users and the most harmonious social cohabitation possible."