February 23, 2018

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Little progress on bus safety in year since driver's slaying, transit union president laments

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The number of assaults on bus operators has remained consistent over the past couple of years, according to Winnipeg Transit. In 2016, 48 assaults on drivers were reported, while in 2017, there were 51 incidents.</p></p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The number of assaults on bus operators has remained consistent over the past couple of years, according to Winnipeg Transit. In 2016, 48 assaults on drivers were reported, while in 2017, there were 51 incidents.

Almost one year after bus driver Irvine Jubal Fraser died from stab wounds sustained on the job, his friend and transit union president said not enough progress has been made on ensuring drivers' safety.

"We’re hoping that his death is not in vain and I think there is room for us all to work together," said Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents more than 1,400 Winnipeg and Brandon-based members.

Fraser, 58, died on Feb. 14, 2017, after being stabbed repeatedly by a passenger he tried to wake up at the end of his route at the University of Manitoba. The attack occured at about 2 a.m., and the suspect was caught by police trying to escape across the frozen Red River.

Brian Kyle Thomas was charged with second-degree murder in the case and is awaiting trial.

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Almost one year after bus driver Irvine Jubal Fraser died from stab wounds sustained on the job, his friend and transit union president said not enough progress has been made on ensuring drivers' safety.

"We’re hoping that his death is not in vain and I think there is room for us all to work together," said Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents more than 1,400 Winnipeg and Brandon-based members.

Fraser, 58, died on Feb. 14, 2017, after being stabbed repeatedly by a passenger he tried to wake up at the end of his route at the University of Manitoba. The attack occured at about 2 a.m., and the suspect was caught by police trying to escape across the frozen Red River.

Brian Kyle Thomas was charged with second-degree murder in the case and is awaiting trial.

"The perception of the operators is there's not a significant change (in safety measures), but I think Winnipeg Transit and the union and the city and the province working together should be able to make some kind of difference," Chaudhary said.

As a pilot project, Winnipeg Transit is installing shields on six of its buses, said interim acting director Greg Ewankiw. There are two types of shields — one is flat and fixed in place, while the other is split in two pieces, offering more flexibility for the driver to move it around. After six months, transit will consult with drivers about which, if either, of the shields they prefer.

Winnipeg police beat officers have been riding the bus dozens of times per month, according to data obtained through a freedom of information request. On-duty police ride the bus, both in plain clothes and in uniform, spokesman Const. Rob Carver said.

Carver added many off-duty officers commuting to work downtown also step in to prevent violence, himself included. During the Christmas season, Carver said he helped remove an intoxicated person from a bus on a weekday evening near Bell MTS Place.

After Fraser's death, a working group within the police service's downtown division was also established to look at ways to modify or enhance Transit safety. Their findings are expected in the coming months, Carver said, and they likely won't include adding more officers on buses.

"Without dedicated officers on bus routes — which is kind of the most expensive, least effective way to make this safe — we're always struggling with limited resources, and officers aren't cheap," he said.

Chaudhary, who drove for Transit for 18 years, said he'd be happy to see shields installed permanently.

"In my personal opinion, the shields are a must-have. It won’t avoid 100 per cent of the assaults against the operators, but I think it will decrease the spitting, the being sworn at, the physical assaults. You might still have some, but it will decrease it by quite a bit at least," he said.

The number of assaults on bus operators has remained consistent over the past couple of years, according to statistics provided by Winnipeg Transit. In 2016, 48 assaults on drivers were reported, while in 2017, there were 51 incidents.

Chaudhary said the number of death threats uttered at drivers has risen in the last few months, though Winnipeg Transit and Winnipeg Police couldn't confirm that was the case.

The Transit community is still reeling from Fraser's death, according to the union president, who would like to see a full-time psychiatric nurse or therapist available to employees.

"Especially if you’re spit at or punched for whatever reason, or being sworn at — it’s not your fault. Psychologically, it has an effect on you and it’s not an easy thing to get over," Chaudhary said, noting the majority of disputes stem from passengers trying to avoid paying fares.

Ewankiw said it's a challenge to stop bad behaviour and "no level of operator assaults are acceptable to us."

"It's a challenge, no question. We board approximately 170,000 people per day and so there's a lot going on, a lot of people attending to our buses," he said. "This is a challenge that's being seen all across Canada, really across North America, and there isn't really any single one method (to fix the problem).

"It's a number of initiatives that have to go into play, which is us testing the safety barriers, safety campaigns... we've also produced a series of public-education videos (available on YouTube)."

On Wednesday, the transit union is organizing a vigil in Fraser's memory at the Union Centre (275 Broadway). It starts at 10 a.m. Buses will include "In Memory of #521," which was Fraser's badge number, on their electronic signs.

"(Fraser) was a super nice guy. He was always happy-go-lucky type of guy, always smiling," Chaudhary said of his friend of about 16 years. "I’d never see him really upset or anything. Very calm, collected person and very family-oriented. He was just about everybody’s friend."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

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History

Updated on Monday, February 12, 2018 at 5:07 PM CST: tweaks lede

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