'Just driving a bus:' Winnipeg Transit drivers scared after 'brother' slain on duty
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Winnipeg Transit operators don’t feel safe, least of all during the late shift, and even less so after one of their own was killed near the University of Manitoba late Monday night.
Following the fatal stabbing of bus driver Irvine Fraser—a 58-year old Winnipegger former co-workers say was “always smiling”—a small group of transit operators huddled together in Winnipeg City Hall and listened to civic leaders address the tragedy in front of the media.
They heard chief transportation and utilities officer Dave Wardrop talk about increased safety on buses brought about by cameras and spot checks from cadets, uniformed and undercover Winnipeg Police Service officers.
They heard him explain the long-term trend shows “decreasing assaults,” and that this incident is “the first time that a Winnipeg bus driver or Winnipeg bus operator has been killed as a result of an altercation.”
They heard Mayor Brian Bowman offer “deep condolences” to Fraser’s friends, loved ones, and colleagues.
Bowman acknowledged it’s a “sad day,” but, upon the advice of Police Chief Danny Smyth, said he will wait for “the investigation to conclude before reaching any conclusions” about whether or not there’s a safety problem on city buses.
“I think it’s important we have the facts,” Bowman said.
Nelson Giesbrecht, one of the transit employees within earshot, said all he knows is that his “fellow brother was murdered for doing his job last night.”
Giesbrecht said Fraser was a “family guy,” who was “always happy and always in a good mood;” and, much like himself, the kind of bus driver who would forget about a fare for someone who “needed a ride.”
More than mourning Tuesday, and beyond being “shaken up,” Giesbrecht said he’s “sh-- scared” to get behind the big wheel again.
But that fear isn’t totally new, just amplified, as it isn’t wholly driven by Monday’s incident. The 19-year veteran bus driver said he personally felt unsafe driving the bus at night, and after a brief stint on the late shift he moved to days.
He’s not alone, either. Other operators who preferred not to be named said similar things, adding that more could be done to protect drivers.
“It's just surreal to think that you can lose your life ... just driving a bus,” added John Callahan president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local.
“We've talked about driver security for a long time and we always worried about this - the worst-case scenario - and it's actually happened.”
There were 60 assaults on Winnipeg transit drivers in 2015, a jump of 54 per cent from the previous year, said Callahan. The number went down to 45 assaults in 2016, partly due to undercover officers who intervened in some disputes.
Callahan believes what's needed is an entire redesign of transit buses — an idea that's being studied in the United States — with a full enclosure for drivers and an emergency door on the left side of the bus.
Drivers deal with passenger problems on a daily basis. Some have issues with addictions and mental health, he said.
"Do they have the tools to deal with all this? Probably not. It's a really tough job."
In 2009, Edmonton transit driver Tom Bregg was dragged off his bus and stomped on by a drunken passenger who refused to pay a $2.50 fare. Bregg suffered brain injuries and lost sight in one eye.
The federal government passed Bregg's Law in 2015 allowing for judges to impose more severe penalties for attacks on bus drivers.
- With files from The Canadian Press