Bus drivers fear for safety after deadly Winnipeg Transit attack
Transit operator Irvine Fraser, 58, died after stabbing on University of Manitoba campus
A pair of Winnipeg Transit drivers say they no longer feel safe behind the wheel after a deadly attack left one of their own dead.
"Now I'm to the point of, 'put me in a cage.' I don't want to see money, I don't want to see nothing," longtime driver Nelson Giesbrecht said. "Let me drive my bus."
A 58-year-old Winnipeg Transit driver, Irvine Fraser, died Tuesday after he was attacked on the University of Manitoba's campus. A police canine unit helped track down and arrest a 22-year-old man on the nearby frozen Red River. The man remains in custody but police haven't released details about what charges he is facing.
Giesbrecht, who has served 19 years as a Winnipeg Transit driver, said his colleague's death makes him fear for his own safety.
"There's no reason why this should happen," Giesbrecht said. "He was always happy. He was always in a good mood. He would bend over backward for you. He was a good guy.
"I don't think he was the type of guy who would care about a bus fare if somebody said, 'Oh, I need a ride.'"
Jody Prokipchuk, another Winnipeg Transit driver, said she also wants to see changes to buses to make her job safer.
Police said Fraser was stabbed, but haven't confirmed a weapon or whether the incident happened on or off the bus.
Bloodstained snow could be seen next to a transit bus parked beyond a taped-off area of Dafoe Road West on Tuesday.
'Death of our brother'
Dave Wardrop, the city's chief transportation officer, said this is the first case he knows of where a Winnipeg Transit driver died on the job from an attack.
While the death might be a first, assaults happen all the time on transit buses, said the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).
"Most are the result of a fare dispute, but an alarming number happen just because someone wants to do violence to a bus driver," ATU international president Larry Hanley said in a statement.
"ATU demands that transit agencies and government officials bring the same sense of regret that they will display in the public mourning of this tragic, unnecessary death of our brother, to the ongoing discussion about preventing these attacks from occurring."
John Callahan, ATU Local 1505 president in Winnipeg, said he was speechless when he found out about the death early Tuesday morning.
"It's the scenario we always dreaded and it actually happened," he said. "It was very sobering to say the least."
Winnipeg has been taking steps in the right direction to increase driver safety but clearly it is not enough, Callahan said. Drivers face a lot of abuse on the job because "they are frontline ... an easy target," he said.
"This is just a guy doing his job and you should not end up dead at the end of your shift," he said. "It's tragic and we need to really have dialogue on things that can be done to protect these working men and women."
Callahan said he has plans to speak with officials at the city about solutions including shields and other bus redesigns. But he said there's no doubt in his mind that "we need dedicated transit police."
Time for shields?
Prokipchuk, who used to ride the late-night bus home with Fraser after work, said she likes the idea of putting shields around drivers.
"I would [also] like to have my driver's window be a release to get out in case of any emergency," she said. "It's a solid window — you can't get out."
Winnipeg Coun. Brian Mayes agreed, saying it's time to revisit the possibility of installing shields.
"If I were a driver, I'd probably be talking about shields. That's fair enough. But it's not like we missed it before. We have talked about it before and there wasn't support from the union. Maybe that will change," Mayes said.
Mayes first raised the issue of driver safety in 2011, when he called on the city to put special constables on public transit. Coun. Matt Allard had a motion approved in 2015 that put undercover Winnipeg police officers on buses.
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There were 60 incidents on transit buses in 2015 alone, a 54 per cent jump over 2014, according to numbers released last year by the ATU. There were 46 assaults on buses in 2016, including 11 cases where someone either used a weapon or threatened to do so, a city spokesperson said.
There are concerns about driver safety across the country, Wardrop says, and he plans to work with the transit union, police and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to sort out whether anything can be done to prevent similar tragedies.
Bregg's Law, a federal law passed two years ago, allows for stiffer penalties in attacks against transit drivers. The law is named after Tom Bregg, an Edmonton bus driver who was severely beaten on the job in 2009, suffering brain damage.
'Huge injustice was done'
Third-year University of Manitoba biology student Taylor Nimchonok said she was shocked to hear of the violent incident that has rattled the campus.
"I was just devastated. I thought it was incredibly unfair, a huge injustice was done," said Nimchonok, who started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Fraser's family.
"My heart just kind of broke, to be perfectly honest … because it's just so close to home and it happened in a community that I'm very much a part of."
Taking public transit to and from campus is part of the daily routine of many University of Manitoba students, especially since the school adopted a U-Pass system in 2014, which includes a bus pass as part of tuition.
"Public transport is incredibly important to the University of Manitoba Students, and university students everywhere, because it makes education affordable and accessible," Nimchonok said.
"[Fraser] was playing a vital role in our education and I think that's really important."
With files from The Canadian Press, Nelly Gonzalez, Jillian Taylor and Meaghan Ketcheson