Montreal Gazette, Jan. 9, 2013
It was a simple, straightforward request that Gazette transportation reporter Andy Riga put to the Société de transport de Montréal.
Using Quebec’s access-to-information law, Riga asked the transit authority what legal opinion it had, either from in-house counsel or outside lawyers, on how Bill 101’s language requirements apply to the agency’s employees — notably those whose jobs involve dealing with the public.
Yet getting a straightforward answer turned out to be no simple thing.
The initial response, from the STM’s director of legal affairs, Sylvie Tremblay, was that no such legal opinion exists. After that was reported, STM vice-chair Marvin Rotrand piped up to contradict her, saying that the STM does in fact have written opinions from its legal department about the matter.
However, not only was Rotrand at a loss to explain the discrepancy between their responses, he maintained that while he does have such opinions in hand, these cannot be shared with the public. Why not? Because, said Rotrand, it is STM policy to keep internal legal opinions confidential.
The issue of STM language policy has become contentious over the past year as a result of a series of highly publicized incidents involving STM employees belligerently refusing to serve transit users in English. In one incident last October, a métro ticket taker allegedly assaulted a passenger who complained to her about being refused service in English.
Côte Saint-Luc Mayor Anthony Housefather, who has been pressing authorities on the matter for some years, was told by STM board chair Michel Labrecque in 2009 that in conformity with the language law, hiring criteria for bus drivers require only a knowledge of French, and that drivers cannot be expected to communicate in a language other than French. A similar opinion was ventured two years later by former mayor Gérald Tremblay’s chief of staff, Hugo Morissette. He did allow, however, that a language other than French can be used in communication with STM clientele, and that in cases where an emergency evacuation of a métro station is necessary, the announcement is also made in English.
The insistence that bilingualism cannot be legally required of transit employees who deal with bus and métro riders is disputed by civil-rights lawyer Julius Grey, who maintains that the STM is misinterpreting Bill 101. He and others note that the language law allows an exception to the rule that no language other than French can be required in hiring when “the nature of the duties requires such knowledge.”
Given the nature of their duties, which include serving a large number of English speakers, it would seem that the exception would legitimately apply to front-line STM employees. This is precisely the interpretation of the law that has been taken by the provincial agency that oversees commuter trains in the Montreal region, the Agence métropolitaine de transport. The AMT requires fare inspectors along with ticket-counter and call-centre employees to be able to communicate in English.
More than a legally defensible policy, this is a sensible approach that it surely behooves the STM to emulate. More than a helpful courtesy to its English-speaking clientele, extending service in English to those who need it is important to maintaining Montreal’s reputation as a welcoming destination for visitors, something on which the local economy is heavily dependent. Surly refusal of English service — as was extended to Montreal Impact player Miguel Montano last summer, prompting Montano in turn to say on Twitter that Montreal was a racist city — is decidedly counterproductive.
In practice, STM employees are typical of Montrealers as a whole in that the great majority are accommodating of English speakers, whether or not the law requires it. For the transit authority, providing service in English should not be contingent on legal opinions, but rather on the common sense that providing service in English ultimately benefits all Montrealers.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
In my opinion:
The Gazette got it bang on. Providing service in English, in addition to French, in any essential service just makes good sense. It is courteous to those who pay the taxes to provide the service in the first place as well as to visitors. It makes sense to attract more users to the service, to attract tourists to the city and to welcome business investment too.
Kudos to Mayor Anthony Housefather who has stood up for the rights of Quebec’s English-speaking community for 20 years. We must continue to speak up and to advocate for rights, privileges and for good sense.