Winnipeg Transit driver who was punched in face lives in fear of another assault, court told
Drivers attacked by passengers are often afraid to press charges, union vice-president says
A Winnipeg Transit driver who was punched in the face on the job goes to work every day afraid he'll be assaulted, a court heard Wednesday.
"He gets flashbacks to the incident when passengers start to get too disruptive on the bus," Crown lawyer Theresa Cannon said at a sentencing hearing for a 35-year-old man found guilty of assaulting the driver.
"He thinks to himself, 'Please don't let this happen again.'"
The driver was on his downtown route on Graham Avenue on July 20, 2020.
Court heard a passenger who was under the influence became erratic. When the driver asked the passenger to stop swearing, the man reached around the driver's protective shield and punched him in the face.
The driver's left eye was red and swollen for days. His vision was blurred, so he had to take four days off from work.
Court heard he has no permanent physical injury, but Cannon said the psychological damage continues.
"When it happened, he could not sleep that night and for a few days," she said.
"He didn't tell his family, as he said, 'They might tell me to quit. My kids would be upset and might be scared to get on a bus.'"
The 35-year-old man, who was found guilty in a judge-only trial at Manitoba provincial court, was given an 18-month suspended sentence Wednesday for the assault.
City wants public feedback on bus safety
The sentencing comes a day after the city's infrastructure and public works committee approved work on getting public feedback about how to make Winnipeg buses safer. It will go to city council's executive policy committee for more discussion on March 16.
But the union for Winnipeg Transit drivers wants the city to go to bus operators first.
"They should approach the people who are firstly affected," said James Van Gerwen, vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505. He was in court on Wednesday in place of the driver who was assaulted.
"Engage the people who are fully involved in this — the front-line workers."
Van Gerwen said the assault demonstrates why buses need extended shields to protect drivers.
He's been to court three times to support assaulted drivers since he took on his role with the union in early 2020, he said, and wants to see more drivers pursue charges.
"The problem is, most of the assailants aren't caught," Van Gerwen said.
"Then half the time, the drivers are fearful to file charges because they feel that they're out in the public, and the people know which bus they're on. They can be targeted again."
Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), who chairs the city committee that looks after transit safety, says the transit department has taken steps over the years to boost safety, including a new emergency signal system on buses.
"It must be said though, that no matter what the city does to improve safety on buses, no solution is complete without addressing the root sources of crime and violence," Allard, who wasn't available for an interview on Wednesday, wrote in an email.
"We need to go back to basics, which is providing affordable housing, education and providing people with the addictions support that they need."
Allard also said he does speak with transit drivers, both on buses he rides and at the transit advisory committee — a group meant to address safety issues in the industry.
The 35-year-old sentenced Wednesday must follow conditions in the community, which include not getting on a transit bus while drunk or high and completing 20 hours of community service within a year.
Court heard the man lives with schizophrenia and addictions, and has battled homelessness in the past. He has a criminal record, but hasn't reoffended since the 2020 transit assault.
Judge Wanda Garreck called the assault "inexcusable," but said she was torn in delivering a sentence.
"That complainant and the community need to understand that if someone assaults a transit driver, you should be getting a jail sentence," she said at Wednesday's sentecing.
But she said she is "also required to consider the person that's in front of me," and was attempting "to recognize what has brought you to where you got involved in this offence today, and to balance that with what we can do to try and prevent this from happening again."
She also acknowledged the challenge of being a Winnipeg Transit driver coming into contact with people who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
"We hear about it often — they end up on transit and there ends up being issues or problems for people who are just trying to learn a pretty difficult living," said Garreck.