In his latest book, Driven, Calgary author Marcello Di Cintio poses the question: “Where are you least likely to die of a heart attack?” His answer: “In a taxi, because the odds are your driver is a cardiologist.”

In his latest book, Driven, Calgary author Marcello Di Cintio poses the question: "Where are you least likely to die of a heart attack?" His answer: "In a taxi, because the odds are your driver is a cardiologist."

Hyperbole, sure, but it illustrates the demographics of Canadian taxi drivers. According to the 2006 Census, "more than a fifth of immigrant taxi drivers held a post-secondary degree, compared to fewer than five per cent of Canadian-born cabbies."

Two hundred foreign-born drivers had been doctors in their homelands. That same census showed 60 per cent of drivers in Winnipeg were born abroad.

Driven is a collection of short essays laying out the backstory for an eclectic array of immigrant cabbies. They came to Canada to escape various hardships in their homelands, from the Holocaust in Europe to wars in the Mideast and Africa. All of the characters are driven by an incredible work ethic, where 17-hour days are not uncommon. Before the advent of Uber, drivers quickly piled up cash.

Di Cintio talked to drivers from across Canada. Most get a sympathetic, if sometimes bemused, hearing — except for drivers in Winnipeg, who get a rough ride. Winnipeg drivers did not want to talk to Di Cintio about the complaints of sexual harassment from Indigenous women.

"During my year among the cabbies, I would come to see most taxi drivers as inherently good… In Winnipeg, though, cabbies were the villains in almost all the stories I heard."

To provide an alternative for Indigenous women, Anishinaabe artist and community activist Jackie Traverse founded Ikwe Safe Rides in 2016, a non-profit ride-share service that matches female volunteer drivers with women needing a ride.

Since Winnipeg taxi drivers are overwhelmingly Punjabi, "racial undertones complicate the Ikwe-cabbie battle," Di Cintio writes. A few women the author spoke to "wondered whether or not the cabbies’ behaviour had something to do with their culture," but "I simply could not swallow the notion that Punjabi men are innately racist or misogynist."

A "working girl" in Calgary offers a much different view of cabbies, who always treated her "like she had value" as a human being. She always felt safer with a cabbie than a cop. "I was never sexually assaulted by cab drivers… but I was sexually assaulted by police officers… And I was a minor at the time."

The odour of racism often surfaces in places such as Montreal and Toronto; there, it is the cabbies who are victimized by customers or by police. In Montreal, they run headlong into Quebec’s xenophobia. "In Montreal, certain jobs are reserved for what we call pure laine," a Montreal driver known as the Taxi Sheriff tells the author. "Pure laine" refers to those with exclusive French ancestry and is often associated with notions of racial purity.

The Taxi Sheriff chapter is among the most amusing in the book. The battle with Uber is a serious business for drivers, but the Sheriff brings a light touch.

Among other things, he manages to insert his own phone number on to Uber’s listing to mess with the outlaw Uber drivers.

The author also sussed out poets and an award-winning novelist during his year-long trip through Canada’s cab industry. The taxi has long been a "sanctuary for damaged souls," he argues. "Their storylines all intersected with failure and defeat. They’d all lost something before they found themselves behind the wheel."

If you have spent any time at all in cabs, chances are you will have met some of the character types in this easy-reading collection of essays.

Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.