As the City of Winnipeg prepares a week-long effort to combat racism, one of its unions is demanding a tougher response to racist comments allegedly hurled at bus drivers.
The city must act to deter riders from uttering racist slurs at drivers, something that is far too common, said James Van Gerwen, executive vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505. Van Gerwen said about two-thirds of Winnipeg Transit drivers are immigrants to Canada with diverse ethnic backgrounds, some of whom have reported repeated incidents of racism.
"Our drivers are consistently being (subjected to) racial slurs but as soon as they try to defend themselves, they get disciplined," he said.
He said the complaints include a report of a passenger telling a driver to "go back to your country."
Van Gerwen said he’d like the city to start an education campaign to address the issue. If that doesn’t work, he believes warnings and penalties against riders should also be considered, including cutting off ridership privileges in the most severe cases.
The union leader said he’s also concerned training for drivers has fallen short. A recently conducted ATU poll of Winnipeg Transit drivers found two-thirds of 100 respondents said they hadn’t received Indigenous awareness training. In 2016, Mayor Brian Bowman announced that training would be mandatory for all city employees, as part of the city’s reconciliation efforts.
Van Gerwen, who is Métis, said Transit drivers should be prioritized for the training, since they deal directly with the public.
“Our drivers are consistently being (subjected to) racial slurs but as soon as they try to defend themselves, they get disciplined." — James Van Gerwen, executive vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505
The mayor said concerns about racist comments against bus drivers have been reported to his office.
"There’s no doubt that racism affects members of our public service throughout our departments … That’s why it’s incredibly important that Winnipeggers support our efforts (to combat racism)," said Bowman, during a press conference to launch Winnipeg’s first anti-racism week on Monday.
The mayor said the week, which runs from March 21 to 27, aims to educate all Winnipeggers. Events will include a "Human Library" set to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue, which will be held online March 22.
"I’m hoping (this week) can become an annual event for the reasons that ATU is pointing out," said Bowman.
Since 2016, 1,095 Transit employees have completed a 3.5-hour Indigenous awareness course, while another 67 finished a 14-hour one that’s required for leadership positions, said city spokeswoman Tamara Forlanski.
She said there are currently 1,658 Transit staff in total, not just bus drivers, and the training figure includes past and present workers. Forlanski also noted in-person training sessions were put on hold in 2020, due to COVID-19.
The latest municipal efforts to combat racism come in the wake of allegations against four Winnipeg firefighters, who were accused of failing to provide proper medical care in October to an Indigenous woman who had stabbed herself in the throat. An independent review concluded "implicit racial bias" was involved in the incident.
Bowman noted the city has since promised to train all staff on anti-oppression, anti-racism and cultural competency.
"Systemic racism is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon but we are taking a city-wide approach," he said.
“There’s no doubt that racism affects members of our public service throughout our departments … That’s why it’s incredibly important that Winnipeggers support our efforts (to combat racism)." — Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman
Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba and several other organizations have joined forces with the city for the anti-racism week.
Loretta Ross, treaty commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission, said incidents of racism extend into the community, which she’s personally experienced.
"When I went to court, as a lawyer, I was treated differently. People thought that I was the accused simply because of the way that I look," said Ross, who is Indigenous.
She believes the effort to trigger a community-wide conversation will help prevent such racial assumptions.
"(It’s about) … stepping out of our comfort zones and asking (questions) and simply just getting to know each other," said Ross.
The director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg said such efforts should also help combat white supremacy movements.
"To minimize the impact of racism, we need to come together. We need to condemn the groups that promote hate," said Hani Ataan Al-ubeady.
For a full list of anti-racism week events, visit winnipeg.ca/antiracism.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.