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You’re not welcome aboard

by Robin Della Corte November 6, 2012
You’re not welcome aboard

Photo by Madelayne Hajek

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

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Amanda Lenko November 6, 2012 - 20:28

Thank you Robin for getting this story out there. I should have complained, luckily it hasn’t happened to me since. I’m sure this is a common occurrence though and I really hope that the STM makes some changes. It is a public service and should be accessible to all of the public, not just prioritize one part of it. 

A few weeks ago there was an Irish woman from Pittsburgh in front of me who was having trouble with a transfer and the francophone bus driver didn’t even seem able to communicate with her because he didn’t speak a word of English. They were able to communicate only through me as a translator. It’s ridiculous. 

K J November 14, 2012 - 16:10

To be fair, it is reasonable that people who legitimately do not speak English don’t have many options in-the-moment, but the pointed and purposeful refusal to help someone because they don’t speak French is disgusting. If English people did that it would be a HUGE deal. Yes, we are a minority in Quebec, but its our home too.  

alphasaint November 15, 2012 - 20:44

These situations makes me, a “pure québécois pure laine” want to repudiate my francophone cultural roots. 

In Québec, especially, we should all be respecting each other. If I don’t want feel like speaking English, I should be at least respectfull enough to uderstand it and vice versa. 

And you’re right public servant here in Québec must be bilingual and be respectfull by interacting in bothe “official languages of Canada” because they’re Canadian. 

Unfortunatly, our francophone community has been endoctrinated in a belief that the Anglophones are abusive and patronizing ever since we lost that war in 1759. I think we should have better been assimilated into the English culture then. Maybe we would’nt be in that cultural mess today. 

Anyway, essaie de demeurer objective dans tout ce que tu fais. Aussi exigeant que cela peut demander. Je te souhaite plein de succès dans tes efforts académiques afin que tu puisses assumer un rôle de “leader” dans notre société québécoise. Nous avons besoins de personnes tel que toi pour faire progresser notre province vers une équité et une justice collective seine. 

Soit béni Amanda!

Paul E. Marquis November 17, 2012 - 15:19

You refer to a “War”? Which “War”?
There was a Battle of Québec in 1759, the year you refer to. There is also a French Indian War or the Seven Year War culminated in the Americans retreating. Subsequently the British and French in what is now CANADA, getting Upper and Lower CANADA to form a union which is now a country, bilingual; French, English Country.

So your “War” of 1759 is actually a Battle in which Wolf beat up the Marquis de Moncalm on the plains of Abraham, Québec.

A battle won is far from a war won. Please check you facts before writing untruths. 

As for the STM being unilingual, i do not agree nor condone this sort of behavior.
I encounter this sort of challenge here in VANCOUVER, CANADA where i am confronted with unilingual Chinese, or Indians, in certain parts of the Lower Mainland British-Colombia, where people working with the public are unable to serve me in my languages. CANADA’s languages. This is very frustrating.

Doesn’t help  our elected politicians change our laws to accommodate minorities in CANADA.  And actually when you visit here you will see signage in Punjabi, in Chinese, some in Spanish. Some of this signage is bilingual, the stated language augmented by English, some in the City of Vancouver unilingual Chinese.

Paul E. Marquis is married to Zhuang, Chunxiao (Nicole) of Ningbo, Zhejiang, Peoples Republic of China.
Nicole has a degree in Medicine augmented by a degree in Nutrition as well as yoga instructor. Nicole is Fluent in ENGLISH, is studying French and is committed to assist new and existing immigrants to learn our official languages and our culture here in CANADA.

Paul E. Marquis

Paul E. Marquis November 17, 2012 - 14:59

Let me get this straight. You do speak French fluently. Refused to ask the driver in his language, causing disharmony between yourself and the driver. And subsequently expected him to go out of his way to accommodate you? Is this the story I read?

This is certainly what I understand.
I will not condone someone that works with the public mistreating others. Nor do I condone a public servant not attempting to communicate with customers in either English or French in CANADA or Québec.

I do identify accountability and need to call an apple and apple….

Paul E. Marquis 
Franco-Colombien since 1991 And CANADIEN pure laine!  

Brian Vrouvas November 15, 2012 - 15:15

I agree that the STM employes should have a basic understanding of English, but Ms. Ronai is incorrect when she says that English is an official language.  It is an official language of Canada, but not Quebec. Just like the TTC employes aren’t required to learn a basic understanding of French, the STM does the same with English.

Doesn’t make it right, just wanted to get a fact straight.

mikegoffredo November 15, 2012 - 20:21

Brian, last time i checked we still live in canada, and canada has 2 official languages- french and english.  What kind of government has quebec elected, when language profiling is a norm.  Is it ok because it is not racial?  It is a form of discrimination, and when a government justifies ANY form of discrimination, we get the likes of adolf hitler.  Shame on the harper government for abandoning canadians in quebec.. French and english speaking ones.  No one wants to take away any francophone’ s right to speak french in quebec, no one should take anglo’s right from speaking english in canada.

Chris Jenkins November 15, 2012 - 20:29

 Last time I checked, Quebec was a “Canadian” Province

Rodney Budziaszek November 15, 2012 - 20:32

But they aren’t ignorant as the employees of STM and do all they can to help anybody…. french, english, whatever. They do not refuse to help if the person isn’t english speaking.

R_Benjamin November 15, 2012 - 20:45

 M. Vrouvas
You are incorrect – this is officially a bilingual province.
Quebec has used the farce that the French language and Quebec culture is threatened by the existence of English to override the bilingual aspects.  This was done in the early days of individual rights litigation and the surprised reliance on demographic and anecdotal “evidence” has provided cover under the guise of defense and permitted predominance to basically eradicate English.

There are many court cases that are scheduled to be heard in the next 18 months and it will be interesting to observe the process with respect to the demographic shift and the result.

phillipa pickles November 16, 2012 - 02:46

Actually, M. Vrouvas is right. French is the official language in Quebec, but, de facto, Montreal is a bilingual city. Quebec, not so much.

You can check the Charter of french language here:

Natalie Carreiro November 15, 2012 - 22:04

And the last time I checked Brian Québec is in Canada and Canada IS bilingual. As a polyglot I become infuriated at this attitude of “french only” in Québec. This goes beyond just insulting non-french speaking people but how wonderful we must seem to tourists! I worked in the public for over 17 years and was always more than happy to answer people in their mother tongue when possible. Although he wasn’t elected into office  François Legault said something to Marois during their debates that made me smile- when she accused him of once believing in the P.Q’s dream of  sovereignty he said yes it was true…but that he evolved!

Jamie November 15, 2012 - 20:17

The French people in France are far more respectable and tolerant of the English than the Quebecer’s will ever be. And this is coming from a Montreal-er that graduated in Quebec and identifies himself as an Anglophone. 

Take that Marois. Quebecer’s cannot call themselves FRENCH. 

Ben Vaudry November 15, 2012 - 20:18

these idiots  it s going to far now if they look at the faces on money it s the queen not bonne homme de carnival 

ronone November 15, 2012 - 20:38

Start to pay the few bad apples with money that is covered in shit,

Allan Ross November 15, 2012 - 21:09

Mikegofreddo – Canada does not have two official languages – it has one – English. The only place in Canada that has two official languages is New Brunswick.

Chris Jenkins November 15, 2012 - 21:23 Reply
Chronia November 17, 2012 - 02:18

 Canada is officially bilingual, English and French, don’t correct something that wasn’t wrong to begin with. http://www.ocol-clo.gc.ca/html/act_loi_e.php
This is a government of Canada site (see the extension gc.ca in the middle of it). According to the Canadian government Canada has TWO offcial languages French AND English.

Dragonfall November 20, 2012 - 18:53 Reply
Tania Lynne Gravel November 15, 2012 - 22:43

What happens to tourism here if tourists are treated the same way thinking that they are simply English speaking residents? If this is in fact how we treat/ or are treated by our neighbors, what will those looking in think of us?

Tania Lynne Gravel November 15, 2012 - 22:45

What happens to tourism here if tourists are treated the same way thinking that they are simply English speaking residents? If this is in fact how we treat/ or are treated by our neighbors, what will those looking in think of us?

Rosanne Kairns November 15, 2012 - 22:54


Kurushektra November 15, 2012 - 23:18

Tu comprends rien Suraj Suba…. Et tu mentes. Vraiement stupide.

Rinna November 15, 2012 - 23:29

I was very disappointed earlier this year when a UK actress I really liked was charged with “racially aggravated assault” and was sentenced to four months in prison. Along with a physical altercation, she had screamed insults at a taxi driver one of which was “F@ck off back to where you came from…” It is high time that we start calling a spade a spade, and see that linguistic intolerance takes its rightful place alongside other forms of discrimination, In cases like the one that happened with Mina Barak, when uttering such hate filled comments come with physical actions, it should be viewed in the same way as if those comments were racially charged. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how ignorant it is, but when your opinion puts someones life or physical well being at risk, its time to start taking legal measures. I hope, if possible, that people will boycott the service, I don’t believe in handing my hard earned money over to people who abuse me.

gab51 November 16, 2012 - 01:02

If a journalist wrote a story every time an STM employee was rude to anyone, either he or she be an anglophone or a francophone, we could probably establish a brand new daily in Montreal. Being what could be considered a «pure laine» (if such a thing exists to beging with), I have been on the receiving end of many unprofessional actions from STM employees (such as being told I don’t know how to read when I asked for info about a map, asking for a refund of three tickets leading to the police being called for no reason but my   polite insistance to request to speak to a manager and a booth guy simply refusing to serve me when I requested for a receipt for a ticket). Just making this point here to tell everyone who would be tempted to comment on this matter that I am not a very enthusiastic defender of STM employees. I think we can all agree the way the driver acted toward Ms Lenko was very unprofessional and he could have signified either his ignorance of the English language or his refusal to speak it in another way than stating something vaguely political such as No, here we speak French.

However, the readers who left comments so far are not exactly contributing to the debate in a very constructive way and might even be part of the problem. The top, most liked comment, is from Suraj Suba and is plainly racist. Maybe that the fact that these types of comments are not only widely read, but usually accepted and even cheered by a readership that is mainly anglophone contributes to these kind of incidents. This phenonemon is not unique to The Concordian: since the Sept. 4th Bain shooting, the G&Mail closed the comments section of most of its articles about Quebec politics. If you ever read them, you would understand why.

As for the many who pointed out Canada is bilingual: I think we all know that. This does not mean everyone in the country has to learn the ”other” language, be it French or English. As was mentionned in the article, the STM is not under the obligation to offer the service in both languages. The reason why the reaction of the driver is annoying is because he probably did speak or understand English, but did not really want to speak it. The same could be said from the customer, who did speak and understand French but did not really want to speak it at that time. Unless the driver was a total asshole (which is clearly not impossible at the STM), he probably would have answered in English if he saw she did not speak French very well and probably not shoot her off like that. As a francophone who took a few years to speak an acceptable level of English and who used to work a bit with customer service, the expectation of anglophones that all francophones dealing with the public should be English-speaking in order to be competent and ready to serve them is, I believe rightly so, perceived as arrogance in a Quebec context, a context which includes the city of Montreal. Using tourists to justify why francos should all be bilingual is really just a lazy excuse: unless you’re completely ethnocentric, you go in another country to know more of its culture, not to confront it to your standards.

Anyway, moral of the story: give French in Quebec a try, especially if you actually lived there for a while! Might get you out of your coccoon and help smoothe things a little for you in the long term…

Logan937 November 16, 2012 - 17:12

Not everyone chooses to live in Quebec. There are a lot of companies that have their head offices in Montreal and I’m sure lots of people get transferred here.. I am one of those people…. sort of. I am from Ontario and my husband is in the MILITARY.  We were posted here a few years ago and my kids and I only speak English. They can’t get jobs here to help them pay for their education, and were told to get out Quebec. I couldn’t even get a job a Wal-Mart stocking shelves on the grave yard shift because I didn’t speak French. Since when did you need a certain language to open boxes and put products on a shelf? I like living in Montreal, I love the city, the culture and the festivals. This language issue really makes me sad. If you travel any where in the world you will be able to find someone that can speak English without being rude about it. I’m sure these countries aren’t worried that they will lose their culture because they speak English. Plus this city is a big tourist attraction, especially with our neighbours to the south. Do we really want them to feel unwelcomed during this economic time? If the military asks if we would like to do a second posting here I’m afraid I’ll have to ask my husband to decline.

Radu Madalin November 27, 2012 - 08:26

I think the arrogance would be the one revealing aspect of what exactly is going on: some people only speak English and some only french. All right… how then did they get in a headlock, how come there is no real intention of help, how come they only say, here, it is en French: how come there are no phrases like, ”I don’t speak English” and try and help anyway? That the service doesn’t have to be in another language then French, is not the equivalent of saying: ”I won’t help you, because it’s my job to speak French”. Your job is to help, to the extent of your capacity and responsibility, which by the way can be done with no words in some cases. Even the arrogance doesn’t need a verbal outlet. You can’t be proud to be from Québec in moments like this. But then again… there are a lot of people who still think they should be proud of defending their language: you are speaking the language= defense. You are denying the existence of others, and that’s an attack. 


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