‘We want you to escape’: Self-defence course developed for Toronto transit riders

With numerous violent attacks on the TTC, a Toronto martial arts academy has designed a course specifically focused on self-defence while riding public transit. Dilshad Burman reports.

By Dilshad Burman

With violent incidents on the TTC taking place with alarming regularity, a Toronto martial arts academy is now offering a self-defence course specifically for when you’re on public transit.

The 90-minute course is offered by the the Civilian Self-Defence Academy, founded by coaches from the Toronto Krav Maga Academy and hosted at FIIT Co. in the Leslieville neighbourhood.

Co-founder Christopher Gagne explains that the course was born out of popular demand.

“We’ve been inundated with calls, emails, asking for this. People are really concerned about their safety,” he says.

“There’s a growing concern here in Toronto about people being attacked on public transit,” adds Joey De Los Reyes, multi-disciplinary martial arts coach and co-owner of Kombat Arts Training Academy.

The course was designed based on the types of attacks seen most frequently as well the environmental conditions on transit.

“It’s very focused on certain situations — people have been asking how to avoid being pulled or pushed in front of a moving vehicle, for instance, how to protect yourself in an enclosed area [such as a] transit vehicle. And last one — there’s been a lot of weapon attacks, unfortunately, so we’re really focused on that from a sitting position, but also standing from various directions,” explains Gagne.

The techniques being taught are from the Israeli martial art Krav Maga, which De Los Reyes says is the most useful for the purposes of the course.

“I like Krav Maga because it encompasses many different training styles — it teaches you how to defend against attacks, chokes, grabs, against weapons, against multiple attackers. I think it’s really appropriate for who we’re teaching, because basically what we’re trying to teach them is to defend themselves and run away,” he says. “And Krav Maga really, really trains that into your body over and over. We’re not looking to engage into a kickboxing match or a boxing match. We want you to escape.”

Co-founder Nikki Saltz says she’s been attacked twice by total strangers in Toronto.

“Because of my training, the first thing that was on my mind was not, ‘I’m going to attack this guy back.’ It was, ‘okay, I need to deescalate and walk away from this and just get home safe.’ And because I had training, I did exactly that and got home safe,” she says.

The course is open to those 14 and older and many parents have registered their children. Saltz says they feel a greater sense of urgency following the recent stabbing death of a 16-year-old boy at Keele station.

“Since that attack happened over the weekend, we have had lots of parents who registered [for courses in May], emailing us, asking to get their kids in sooner,” she says. “Parents are scared of what’s happening on transit and we would like them to feel slightly better that their loved ones have some tools.”

She adds that it is particularly concerning that a majority of the victims in transit attacks have been women.

“I think a lot of what attracts attackers to women is a particular body language and a particular energy that is vulnerable. Just having the confidence that you can defend yourself changes your body language when you’re walking alone or when you’re riding transit and makes you less likely to be attacked,” she says. “It sucks. It’s a crappy reality that as women, we get targeted more … and I wish it wasn’t like that, but you also have to be realistic. And having training is only going to benefit you.”

While the course looks to provide those practical skills and training, it also aims to help develop situational awareness, so you never have to use them.

“We say avoidance is the best self-defense. Look around you, understand your surroundings, see what people are doing with their body language, listening for sounds of alarms or banging on surfaces or what have you,” says Gagne. “It has to become a habit. Situational awareness is not something we develop overnight. It’s something you can practice and become better at. You don’t want be paranoid, you want to enjoy your life. You don’t want to have your head on a swivel, but at the same time, you have to be aware of your surroundings, your escape routes, exits etc.”

The course begins with exercises focused on such alertness and then moves on to physical skills.

“The physical skills will start with being pushed and avoiding that and being pulled. How do you defend against that as much as possible? How do you avoid someone trying to shove you or grab you? And then we’ll get into the enclosed areas — and there it requires you to defend from different angles … sometimes in a crowded area. Finally, how to defend against weapon attacks. Again, avoidance is always the best, but in an enclosed area, on public transit, you have to protect yourself. So [we teach] some basic skills based on natural reflexes,” says Gagne.

The course creators say there have been questions about how all those skills can be learned in 90 minutes. De Los Reyes says proficiency is not the goal.

“I wouldn’t take a first-aid course and CPR course and pretend I’m a doctor. We’re just trying to introduce you to the basic premise of self-defense with the goal to escape … and hopefully you’ll continue the training on your own,” he says. “We’re not here to make you into a full-fledged fighter like John Wick or something like that.”

“It’s not a one-off seminar that’s going to give you the skills and the tools that you need to survive,” says Saltz. “That continued training, making that part of your lifestyle is really important.”

To that end, course participants are offered a number of free classes at partner gyms.

“We really want to encourage people to be proactive about their own safety and security and not rely on bystanders to step in and have that confidence that if something goes down, they have tools,” she says.

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