Winnipeg transit union pleads for help on ‘safety crisis,’ premier points to recent announcements

Transit drivers in Winnipeg are facing a record number of attacks this year, says their union, which is begging governments to deal with “a public safety crisis” that is now affecting riders.

Nearly 110 assaults on operators have been tracked this year, with two months still to go, said Romeo Ignacio, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.

There were just over 90 assaults in each of the previous two years.

“They’re afraid to go to work now. They’re afraid to even be seen with their uniforms on, so some have resorted to wearing a jacket over their normal uniform when they’re waiting at the bus stops,” Ignacio told CBC Manitoba Up to Speed host Faith Fundal on Tuesday.

“The public is now involved, you know, innocent victims, innocent bystanders, passengers.”

On separate days earlier this month, people waiting at a bus stop at Keewatin Street and Burrows Avenue were attacked and robbed at knifepoint.

On Nov. 5, a woman was sexually assaulted in a bus shelter near Chancellor Drive and Pembina Highway, and the following day, a transit driver climbed out of the bus window to escape a threatening passenger.

“That’s not normal procedure, but he did it because he was so afraid [for] his life,” Ignacio said.

It’s the second time that has happened since July, he said.

“There is a public safety crisis happening in Winnipeg, and we need all levels of government to take immediate action to address this crisis now.”

The ATU is renewing calls for all levels of government to fund a transit security force to monitor and patrol buses and bus stops, something first recommended in a 2021 transit safety study.

“To date, nothing has been done. Something needs to be done now to make transit safe for everybody. This cannot be allowed to continue,” Ignacio said.

‘Significant investments already’

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, asked Wednesday about ATU’s concerns and pleas for help, said her government has already done a lot.

“Crime is a very serious issue, we know that,” she said.

Recent funding announcements tackle violent crime and the root causes of addictions and homelessness, she said. 

“We have made significant investments already in the downtown area in Winnipeg,” Stefanson told CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Wednesday.

“We’ll continue to move in that direction. We’ll continue to work collaboratively with [Winnipeg] Mayor [Scott] Gillingham as well.”

For example, a new provincial police unit is being created to track down repeat violent criminals, and homeless shelters and transitional housing services are getting new funding, she said.

“I think if you’re helping with the overall problem, getting to the root of the problem … but also getting those those violent criminals off the street, I think you’re helping with crime in general, which will help on buses as well,” Stefanson said when pressed about what, specifically, could help the transit situation.

Gillingham tweeted Wednesday morning that he was taking a bus to city hall for the first council meeting since the city’s municipal election on Oct. 26.

During the council meeting, he was appointed to the police board, fulfilling one of his election promises to tackle spiking violent crime in Winnipeg.

“I’m going to do everything I can in my role to make sure that we’re working toward a safer city,” he told reporters after the appointment.

Mayor Scott Gillingham wants to put peace officers on buses. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Asked about the call for help from the ATU, which sent him a letter, Gillingham said he is planning to meet with the union “and discuss ideas to make transit safer.”

He repeated another election promise to put peace officers on buses.

Details on how many officers there would be and what levels of government would pay for them have yet to be determined, Gillingham said.

“We want transit to be a safe option for people,” he said, noting it would take provincial legislation to create the transit peace officer role.

“I’m encouraging them to do that because I see that as a means by which we could bring a transit security team to the city of Winnipeg.”