Winnipeg Transit drivers rally to make safety on buses election priority
Extendable shields, new radio system, transit security force needed to make drivers feel safe, union says
Winnipeg Transit drivers want the city's next mayor and council to make safety on buses a top priority.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 held a rally at city hall in response to an attempted stabbing on a bus last month that forced a driver to jump out a window to escape.
"How do you come to work every day knowing that you could be assaulted before you finish your shift?" said Romeo Ignacio, president of ATU Local 1505.
The union says they need three things to make them feel safe: new extendable shields for drivers, a new radio system and a transit security force.
Dozens of Winnipeg Transit staff members, along with a number of mayoral candidates, attended the rally.
Earlier this year, the city launched an ad campaign to encourage people to take the bus in an effort to boost ridership numbers that had fallen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December, the city installed emergency signals on buses that alert people in the surrounding area to call 911.
That measure doesn't go far enough, Ignacio said.
"We can't rely on that because it could happen any time, the bus could be in the middle of nowhere and if you don't have the security force to respond to that, we could be waiting for the police for hours," he said.
Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin also attended the rally.
He supports the idea of police officers on buses, but questioned where the city would find the staff, given police resources are already "stretched so thin."
Concerns about safety on buses have been building for years, starting with the murder of bus operator Jubal Fraser in February 2017. That led the city to purchase partial shields to make it more difficult for passengers to reach drivers when they are sitting in their seats.
"I'm not sure why we have to wait for something bad to happen, not only with transit but with any situation that we see on the news," said Sabourin.
The transit union says the partial shields don't offer enough protection, and want the new extendable shields instead.
They also want a new radio system, because the current one is not reliable, especially on the outskirts of the city, said Ignacio.
Police, security on buses
When asked whether the union wanted police — or some other form of security force — Ignacio didn't give a direct answer initially, but later explained it wasn't for the ATU to decide.
"We just want somebody that could assist the [transit] supervisors and almost act like somewhere between the cadets and the police," Ignacio said.
"That way they have the ability and the training to actually enforce the bylaws, because that's not happening right now and it's why we're dealing with safety right now."
Louise Simbandumwe of the Police Accountability Coalition supports measures to increase safety for drivers, but questioned whether police officers on buses would be effective.
"Police don't seem particularly well equipped to deescalate situations that might be escalating, and then second, they're obviously not trained to provide mental health support," she said.
The coalition favours a civilian-led crisis response unit with people who are trained to deal with mental health issues, she said.
Since 2017, the city has spent $9.6 million on transit safety initiatives which have either been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, a City of Winnipeg spokesperson said in an email statement.
The federal government has approved $17.3 million to replace all bus radio hardware as part of Transit's Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program application.
The transit advisory committee, which includes representation from the ATU, is exploring strategies and options for a long-term security plan for Winnipeg Transit, the city spokesperson said in the email statement.
With files from Sam Samson and Chantallya Louis