Donations pour in for bus driver who helped woman in niqab

An Ottawa bus driver who came to the defence of a student wearing niqab in 2016 is fighting cancer and getting help from the same community he tried to protect.

Alain Charette needed a specialized chair after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in November

Bus driver Alain Charrette says he couldn't let it go when he heard a passenger on his bus taunt a woman wearing a niqab. 0:25

An Ottawa bus driver who came to the defence of a student wearing niqab in 2016 is fighting cancer and getting help from the same community he tried to protect.

In May 2016, a passenger on a No. 118 OC Transpo bus yelled Islamophobic taunts at an Ottawa woman named Hailey DeJong, a convert to Islam who started wearing niqab in the fall of 2015.

Other passengers tried to come to her aid, asking the person to stop. And when they continued, Alain Charette parked the bus and came to her defence, saying he had called authorities.

He doesn't feel he did anything special.

"I couldn't put up with it. I said, 'This is enough. You know, the lady pays the fare to get a ride. You pay the fare to get a ride. Nowhere does it entitle you to harass anybody for any kind of reason.

'You have a problem with her? You have a problem with me. Come and yell at me. I got the temper that matches the job.'"

I took care of the community, I'm going to rely on the community to take care of a problem that I couldn't solve myself with the chair and oh my God, they came through.- Alain Charette , former OC Transpo  bus driver

Charette received praise for his actions, and is now on the other end of a helping hand.

When he started suffering significant back pain, he attributed it to his 37 years as a bus driver. But what was first thought to be a slipped disk was diagnosed last November as prostate cancer that had spread to his backbone. Three months before he was set to retire, he was given three weeks to live.

Six months later, he's defying the odds but walks with a cane and needs help getting out of bed and out of chairs.

His doctor prescribed a lift chair — which lifts and tilts to help a person stand up — but his insurance won't cover it. So he reached out to Chelby Daigle, editor of the online Ottawa publication Muslim Link, whom he had been in contact with for the last two years. 

Within three days, an online fundraiser brought in enough money to pay for the chair.

"I'm not really surprised actually, because the story had been so popular, internationally even. I think a lot of people recognized him and recognized the story. It's Ramadan, so it's a time of giving," Daigle said.

Chelby Daigle organized a crowdfunding campaign to help raise money for Charette's specialized chair. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Bus action still stands out

Daigle said Charette's actions to protect DeJong are still significant two years later.

"Seeing somebody actually who was in a position of authority do something really moved people because oftentimes that's not what happens at all," said Daigle.

Charette told CBC News in 2016 he wasn't going to move the bus until the situation was resolved.

DeJong, a student at the University of Ottawa, wrote a public letter, shortly after, thanking the bus driver on Muslim Link.

"I'm no hero. It's just like a day-to-day thing. When it does happen, well, you deal with it," Charette said in 2016. 

Hailey DeJong, right, poses for a photo with Charette, who came to DeJong's defence when another passenger on the bus shouted Islamophobic comments at her. (Hailey DeJong)

A 'humbling' experience

Charette calls the response to the fundraiser unbelievable.

"What did I do to deserve this, all this attention?" he said.

"I said, OK, I took care of the community, I'm going to rely on the community to take care of a problem that I couldn't solve myself with the chair and oh my God, they came through. How humbling it is that I'm deemed worthy of all that interest. It's just unbelievable."

The chair is set to be delivered by the end of the week and Charette hopes to join Daigle to mark Ramadan in the coming days.

Alain Charette was diagnosed with terminal cancer in November and says he's been overwhelmed by the support he's received through an online fundraiser to help buy him a specialized chair. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)