Amanda Lenko was scared to walk far unaccompanied in the middle of the night.
Lenko, a third-year graphic design student at Dawson College, says she was refused service by a bus driver for the Société de transport de Montréal when she spoke English to him.
The STM provides a service for women who travel alone at night on buses in Montreal called ‘Between Stops.’ The service is offered on all bus lines, including all-night buses, to allow women who travel alone to ask to be let off in between certain stops. From Aug. 30 to April 30 the service starts from 7:30 p.m. and from May 1 to Aug. 29 beginning at 9:00 p.m..
In May, Lenko was on the 376 bus travelling alone at 1 a.m. when she asked in English to be let off in between stops. According to Lenko, the bus driver replied in French “No madame, here we speak French,” and refused to listen to her.
“Every time I talk to employees I always speak French,” said Lenko. “But it was this one time I spoke English and he didn’t listen to me.”
The bus driver dismissed Lenko’s request, letting her off instead at a designated bus stop that was out of her way.
Lenko says she was too shocked and afraid to argue with the employee.
She went on to say that every time she did speak French, she didn’t encounter problems with STM employees and while she didn’t file a complaint to the STM because she felt “it wasn’t a big deal at the time,” she now admits that she regrets not doing so.
The STM has been under fire recently for a slew of language-related incidents, including one from 23-year-old Mina Barak, who claims she was attacked by an employee at De La Savane Métro station. The incident began when an Opus machine accepted Barak’s money but did not issue her transit tickets in return.
In an interview with Global News, Barak said she was told to “go back to your country” and “in Quebec we only speak French” by the employee she approached for help.
Afterwards, Barak called the STM on her phone to file a complaint. When she spoke with the teller again, Barak claims that the STM worker gave her the middle finger. After Barak told the worker she was going to ensure her dismissal, the employee allegedly left the booth and forced Barak into a headlock.
In early October, a poster taped to the ticket booth at Villa Maria métro station garnered city-wide attention for its slogan that read: “In Quebec, we do things in French.”
In accordance with the Office de la langue française, the agency that administers the provisions of the provincial language law, customers or clients may ask in English for a service but under Bill 101, companies are not allowed to require employees to know a language other than French. While there are exceptions to this law, Montreal’s public transit authority is not required to offer bilingual services.
However due to the violent nature of Barak’s encounter with an employee, the STM Vice-chair Marvin Rotrand told Global News that “the issue will be discussed at the STM’s board meeting next month.”
For some, unilingual services create an unnecessary divide for residents of Montreal.
Léonard Leprince, a first-year political sciences student at Concordia University, said that it was disappointing that “jobs in the field of customer service aren’t encouraged to have bilingual employees.”
Emma Ronai, a first-year International development and African studies student at McGill University, said that she chooses to speak French because “she didn’t want to hear the STM’s drama” and due to the fact she knows English friends who have been harassed.
Furthermore, Ronai emphasized that the Agence métropolitaine de transport also possess language barriers. One line in particular, the Deux-Montagnes train line announces important messages on their intercoms solely in French. Many commuters have complained that they don’t understand what is being said, similar to when the STM announcements are solely issued in French.
“If you’re paying for the service, you should know what is going on. We’re not talking about learning Chinese, Spanish or Swahili to please a tiny percent of users, we’re talking about an official language, which has been recognized by law,” Ronai said.
With files from Kalina Laframboise