Rally for slain bus driver demands protection from 'heinous attacks'

Emotional pleas to protect bus drivers from "heinous attacks" echoed through Winnipeg's City Hall courtyard on Friday as hundreds of transit workers rallied in the wake of this week's fatal stabbing of Irvine Jubal Fraser, 58.

Irvine Fraser, 58, was killed on the job in Winnipeg on Tuesday

Hundreds of Winnipeg Transit workers gathered Friday at City Hall, demanding changes to improve safety on buses. (CBC)

Emotional pleas to protect bus drivers from "heinous attacks" echoed through Winnipeg's City Hall courtyard on Friday as hundreds of transit workers rallied in the wake of this week's fatal stabbing of Irvine Jubal Fraser, 58.

The workers and union representatives demanded all levels of government immediately begin making buses safer for drivers and the public.

"Let us not have Brother Fraser's murder be in vain," said Amalgamated Transit Union Canada president Paul Thorp, calling for changes to bus designs.

Amalgamated Transit Union Winnipeg president John Callahan speaks at the rally with ATU Canada president Paul Thorp applauding in the background. (CBC)

Airline pilots and train operators have their own work areas, but bus operators "lie in wait of these heinous attacks out in the open," he said.

Civic and provincial officials have talked about safety for three years, but it's just lip service, said John Callahan, the union's Winnipeg president.

"What's it going to take? Do we need a driver knocked out while in the driver's seat with a bus full of people careening out of control? Because it's going to happen," he said.

"We need change now. This is not just about bus operators, this is about public safety."

Fraser, 58, died Tuesday after he was stabbed by a man who was on the bus as it pulled it up to the last stop of his shift around 2 a.m.

Irvine Fraser's wife is comforted at the rally. (Nelly Gonzalez/CBC)

Fraser's brother, Dean Byard, sobbed as he tried to speak at the rally. Nearby, Fraser's wife, Wanda McPhee, also cried and was comforted by Transit workers.

"We appreciate the love and support that Jubal was given," Byard said. "As you know, you couldn't see Jubal without a smile on his face, and I'm sure he's smiling down on you guys right now for your support."

He echoed the union's calls to improve safety.

"We've got to get something changed here," he said. "We're going to call it the Jubal Law."

A GoFundMe page set up to raise funds to support Fraser's family has raised more than $29,200 in two days. All funds and control of the page were handed over to Fraser's family on Friday.

Dean Byard, Irvine Fraser's brother, breaks down as he speaks at Friday's rally. (CBC)

Fraser's funeral will be held Tuesday at Calvary Temple in downtown Winnipeg at 1 p.m. CT. Callahan said it will be open to the public.

Brian Kyle Thomas, 22, is charged with second-degree murder, possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose and failure to comply with a probation order.

Since Fraser's death, many Winnipeg Transit operators have come forward to express concerns over safety and have spoken about their own encounters with violence.

James Van Gerwen, who has been a driver for 13 years, said the rally was necessary "to open eyes to a system that requires desperate changes to ensure the safety of both drivers as well as the hundreds of thousands of people we carry each day.

"Let's let them know that one life is too many."

Fraser's death is the first time a Winnipeg bus driver has been killed in an on-the-job assault, according to Callahan.

Transit driver Irvine Fraser, 58, died Feb. 14, 2017, after he was attacked while finishing his route on the University of Manitoba campus. (Facebook)

Van Gerwen spoke about assaults he has faced and how his 10-year-old granddaughter has had to be consoled since Fraser's death because she fears for him and his wife, who is also a driver.​

Van Gerwen, who refers to the night shift of Transit drivers as "the dark side," said he and other drivers appeared at city hall a couple of years ago and warned politicians and administrators that a major incident was bound to happen if safety wasn't improved.

"My trust in the system has been breached."

Since Fraser's death, Mayor Brian Bowman and Winnipeg Transit director Dave Wardrop have committed to making changes. Van Gerwen said he hopes they fulfil those promises.

"It is unacceptable that any worker should go to work in fear of being harmed or never being able to return to their loved ones. And yet every day five transit workers across Canada are assaulted," Thorp said.

"That doesn't include the ones that don't get reported because the person is too humiliated that they've been spat on, verbally abused, threatened."

"One life is too many," was chanted by the crowd at city hall. (Nelly Gonzalez/CBC)

Bregg's Law, a federal law passed two years ago, allows for stiffer penalties in attacks against transit drivers but it has amounted to very little, Thorp added, saying often the assailants don't serve a day in jail.

"The legal system is failing us," he said, eliciting shouts of "Yes! Yes!" from the crowd.

Thorp demanded judges begin to "uphold the law to the fullest measure."

Callahan said Friday's gathering was an obvious show of support and a cry for change.

"First, it's a call to action, of course, for the recent events, and, I mean, all our concerns about safety for our bus operators," he said. "Also it's a chance for us, an opportunity for healing for some of our members as well, and to honour our fallen brother who was slain."

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      Callahan said he wants to see safety improvements for Winnipeg bus drivers, including a change to fare collection that takes the onus off drivers. Winnipeg may be called on to be a leader on transit safety.

      Thorp said schedules must be made more realistic.

      Run times are generated by a computer programmed by a person that has never driven a bus, "who doesn't know that traffic causes congestion, passenger load causes slowdowns, and having to use the washroom is a human right," he said.

      When buses run late, drivers take the brunt of the public's anger.

      To avoid that, some drivers refuse to drink water so they won't have to stop and use the washroom, Thorp said, adding they also eat while driving.

      "It's time our employers step up and have our backs."

      Friday's guest list for the event included city councillors and a representative from the Winnipeg Labour Council, along with presidents from regional Amalgamated Transit Union branches across Canada.

      "This isn't a local issue, this is a national issue," Callahan said, adding that the message applies for all workers and labour supporters everywhere.

      "At the end of it all, it's one message. It's about health and safety and protection for working people, and especially for bus operators."

      Other speakers included Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, and NDP MP Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood–Transcona), a former member of the Winnipeg Labour Council.

      They added their voices to the call for change and said they will help make sure there is the political will to make that happen.

      "The labour movement will fight with you for the change we need," Rebeck said.

      Both expressed condolences to Fraser's family while Blaikie also acknowledged the sense of grief and the sense of outrage being felt by Transit workers.

      "There's no question that we need to do something," he said. "It's clear from what happened that we haven't done enough yet to make sure that [Transit workers] can go to work without that sense of fear."

      The funeral for Fraser is at Calvary Temple on Tuesday at 1 p.m. CT. Callahan says it will be open to the public.

      Also at 1 p.m. Tuesday, transit operators will pull over and stop their buses at safe locations to recognize one minute of silence for Fraser.

      Throughout the day, the route and destination signs on the front of buses will scroll the message "Rest in Peace 521," a nod to Fraser's operator badge number, in addition to usual information.

      Emotional pleas to protect bus drivers from "heinous attacks" echoed through Winnipeg's City Hall courtyard on Friday as hundreds of transit workers rallied in the wake of this week's fatal stabbing of Irvine Jubal Fraser, 58. 1:03