Transit bus briefly hijacked, sprayed with bear repellent

People on a Winnipeg Transit bus were temporarily held hostage as a man attempting to flee from two other men threatened the driver and then fired off a blast of bear spray, filling the bus with the noxious fumes.

'It was a packed bus with mothers and young kids with them,' transit union head says

The union representing Winnipeg Transit drivers says security hasn't improved since one of their drivers was killed in 2017. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Passengers and a Winnipeg Transit driver were caught in a crossfire of bear spray blasted during an armed fracas on a Portage Avenue bus earlier this month. 

The event has the head of the union representing Transit drivers slamming security on buses as inadequate and criticizing the City of Winnipeg's response to bus safety issues. 

Security concerns on city buses have been in the spotlight in Winnipeg since February 2017, when Transit driver Jubal Fraser was killed while on duty.

Winnipeg police have confirmed a dispute escalated from the street onto a Transit bus just after 9 p.m. on July 6. 

A man being chased down Portage Avenue hopped on to a bus stopped at Langside Street. His two pursuers followed.

As the bus drove off, police say, the men attempted to shoot each other with bear spray. 

The transit driver was threatened with bear spray and told to drive. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

A senior member of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 has seen a video of the incident captured by security cameras on the bus.

Winnipeg Transit declined to share the footage with CBC News, citing "privacy reasons."

It was a "bad situation" that got worse as the man on the bus tried to stop the people chasing him, ATU 1505 president Aleem Chaudhary told CBC.

Turned can of bear spray on driver

"Supposedly he just turned around and tried to spray out at the people following him, but as the door was closing the pepper spray got inside the bus — all over the bus," Chaudhary said. 

The man on the bus pointed the canister of bear spray at the bus operator and forced him to continue driving. 

The driver did so, stopping a short way down the road at Sherbrook Street.

"Everybody was screaming and yelling ... It was a packed bus with mothers and young kids with them," Chaudhary said.

According to what the ATU official witnessed on the video, passengers ran off the bus in a panic.

Once the bus was empty, the driver followed.
Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 1505, says passengers fled the bear-spray filled bus in a panic after it stopped. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

A witness on the street saw what happened and tackled the suspect as he was getting off the bus, police said. 

As the passerby tried to control the man, the can of bear spray discharged, incapacitating him enough that police cadets in the area were able to take him into custody.

The two other men fled and have not been arrested. The person who was detained faces charges of assault and possession of a weapon.

Chaudhary says the driver was treated by paramedics at the scene for the effects of the bear spray and took time off work to recover from the incident.

The driver had hit a panic button in his bus and people at Transit's communications centre could hear what was happening.

"Unfortunately this happens more than not. Not just with the [bear] spray, but we just had passenger pull a knife and said 'drive.' He was a new immigrant to this country and he [the passenger] said 'you don't belong in this country,'" Chaudhary said.

Safety not improving, union says

The ATU says efforts the City of Winnipeg has made to improve bus safety are not working.

In January the city announced it was hiring five "highly trained" former drivers to be inspectors to improve security on buses. 

Chaudhary says the new inspectors have made no impact on safety and aren't trained to respond to incidents.

"I can expect out of them just as much as I would expect out of a normal person such as you and I, who has no training — because they have no training ... they can't really touch people, they can't apprehend people, they can't do anything really," Chaudhary said. 

The ATU wants to see a mix of highly trained undercover and uniformed security staff working daily as transit police. 

City details efforts to improve bus safety 

CBC News asked Winnipeg Transit for an interview with a manager to address some of the union's concerns but the request was declined.

A spokesperson sent an email outlining a number of initiatives Transit has taken in the last year or so.

The spokesperson described inspectors as "highly trained former bus operators who are uniquely positioned as a resource for both operators and passengers."

A list of changes Winnipeg Transit provided to CBC News included a pilot program for driver shields and other efforts; a media campaign encouraging riders to report undesirable behaviour; creating stronger reporting procedures with police, as well as a new safety program aimed at helping employees prevent and defuse conflict. 

The city also said it's in the process of building two new duty stations to be staffed day and night.

Chaudhary, however, says whatever initiatives the city is taking aren't being felt by drivers on the buses.

"There is no visible change whatsoever. Of course they [the drivers] are upset," Chaudhary said.