Montreal·In Depth

Confusion, tension, arrests cloud rollout of Quebec's Uber deal

The rollout of Quebec's deal has been clouded in confusion, fuelling the already-high tensions between Uber drivers, the taxi industry and the authorities who regulate the industry.

Quebec's pilot project has so far meant little to province's Uber drivers

The Quebec government's deal with Uber was meant to bring peace to the taxi industry. But for Uber drivers it has only brought confusion. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

It was shortly before midnight when Daniel Blais joined a group of Uber drivers milling about La Fontaine Park.

It was Sept. 28 and they were waiting for the clock to strike 12, believing the Quebec government's pilot project with the ride hailing service was about to come into effect. 

It was not. About an hour later, Blais was in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser.

The confusion, tension and arrests that marked that night last month are indicative of how the government's deal with Uber has been received so far. 

The deal was meant to provide a temporary legal framework for Uber's Quebec branch, allowing its drivers to operate hassle-free for a year while the government decides on its future.

But since it was announced in early September, the deal has been vociferously opposed by the taxi industry and the subject of misunderstandings by the media and Uber drivers themselves.

For Blais and his fellow Uber drivers, that means there is still little peace of mind as they take to the roads.

Uber reportedly told one driver that he could drive hassle-free on Sept. 8. But the pilot project still has not come into effect. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

Plight of the Uber driver

Since Uber came to Quebec in 2013, its drivers have operated in a legal grey zone.

The app-based UberX service simply connects them with people willing to pay for a ride. 

In the eyes of the Bureau du taxi de Montréal (BTM), though, it is illegal to offer paid rides without a taxi-driver's licence (a 4C licence) or a taxi permit. It carried out more than 400 seizures of Uber vehicles in 2015 alone.

Uber encouraged its drivers to shrug off the seizures, covering the costs to its drivers and contesting the fines in court. 

But the Uber drivers themselves grew to fear their encounters with BTM officers.

"The officers are not nice in the way they talk to us," said Alexander Colorado, who was been an Uber driver for a year. 

"They hit your car, they try to open your doors with force … They're very intimidating."

Blais and Colorado participate in an informal online support network for Uber drivers. They share information about the location of BTM seizure operations and arrange to pick up fellow drivers who have their cars impounded.

"It makes being on the road more comfortable," said Blais. "We just talk to each other. It's better than being isolated." 

In order to avoid run-ins with the BTM, Blais avoids the downtown area and tends to only pick up clients at fixed addresses.

He has also equipped his minivan with a series of cameras; insurance, he says, against clients and overly zealous BTM officers. 

The BTM said its officers all have police training. A spokesperson denied the bureau's officers seek to intimidate Uber drivers.

A taxi driver holds up a sign opposing the presence of Uber in Quebec during a demonstration in Montreal on Oct. 5. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Waiting game

Blais, Colorado and other Uber drivers saw the pilot project as a chance to ease tensions with the BTM. It will give Uber drivers access to taxi permits, and give them a grace period in order to obtain a 4C licence. 

Without the pilot project, they would face harsher legal sanctions under a new law passed this summer. The law categorically removed the grey zone that Uber drivers had enjoyed since 2013.  

The problem with the pilot project, though, is a lack of clarity about when it comes into effect. 

"For us, we thought we were free to drive Sept. 8," Colorado said, referring to the date when Uber and the Quebec announced the terms of the pilot project.

Colorado said he received a text message from Uber that day, confirming that he could get behind the wheel worry-free.

"Uber didn't inform us we had to wait another 20 days."

The text of the deal suggests the pilot project would begin 20 days after being made public. That led most media outlets to peg the date at Sept. 29.

During a news conference in Quebec City last month, Transport Minister Laurent Lessard was asked on four separate occasions to clarify whether Uber could operate legally on the 29th. It still was not clear to the drivers what was happening.

"Everyone thought it was legal on the 29th," said Blais.

Taxi drivers have been vocal in their opposition to the government's plan to allow Uber operate legally on a pilot-project basis. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

'Are we legal?'

Blais and the other drivers who gathered that night at La Fontaine Park were about to take the roads when, just after midnight, they received word a fellow Uber driver had his car seized by the BTM.

They were confused. Hadn't the pilot project just come into effect, making it legal to driver for Uber?

Blais, Colorado and several other drivers made their way to St-Laurent Boulevard, where the car was being towed. The intention was to ask a BTM agent to clarify the law, Blais said. 

"A couple of drivers may have raised their voices, but they were asking a simply question: 'Are we legal?'" Blais told CBC News. "What we got as an answer was eight or nine police cars."

When Montreal police arrived to offer backup to the BTM agents, four Uber drivers were taken into custody.

The police allege they were interfering with the BTM's work.

One driver was released without charge. Three others, including Blais and Colorado, were released with summons to appear, and could face charges of criminal harassment, intimidation and obstructing an officer of the law.

They are due back in court later this month. 

Cat-and-mouse game

In the days before the 29th, the transport minister's office quietly clarified that the pilot project would only come into effect 20 days after its publication in the Gazette officielle du Québec. 

That only happened on Sept. 29, making this Friday the earliest the project will start. Even then, Uber still needs to apply to the Commission des transports du Québec to get approval to act as a taxi intermediary.

It is unclear if they have submitted their application. The approval process could take months.

In the meantime, and despite the law, Uber has been encouraging its drivers to take to the roads, even offering financial incentives for them to do so. Uber did not return requests for comment. 

The BTM, for its part, says it will continue to apply the law, seizing the vehicles of Uber drivers, until it is informed the pilot project makes the ride-hailing service legal.

That means the cat-and-mouse game between Uber drivers and BTM agents will continue, at least for the time being. Blais looks forward, though, to a day when there will be no more animosity between the two sides.  

"When we're legal, I want to go to the BTM and shake their hands," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He will be a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College in 2021-2022.

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