Do the Right Thing

Speaking English to STM employees may have unfortunate consequences. Officer Left may give you a make-over...
Speaking English to STM employees may have unfortunate consequences. Officer Left may give you a make-over…

It’s come to light that the STM may be deliberately misinterpreting Bill 101 to justify its steadfast refusal to offer even the most modest bilingual customer service.

Andy Riga at the Gazette filed an Access to Information request after an incident back in October to see if the STM had indeed consulted with legal counsel to determine whether or not Bill 101 mandated they should offer bilingual service. The STM’s contention was that, according to their lawyers, Bill 101 stipulates that French is the language of work and that’s that, don’t expect to be served in English when using public transit in Montréal.

The request for information revealed that the STM had not, in fact, sought any legal opinion on the matter. Moreover, the AMT’s rather straightforward interpretation of the law is that, as a publicly-funded transit agency that serves both Anglophone and Francophone communities it is required to offer bilingual frontline customer service. And they do. As a regular user of the Deux-Montagnes Line I can tell you everyone from the conductor to security and the ticket-vendors are bilingual and happy to speak either language. I can imagine the AMT would value someone who spoke three or four languages for customer service work too.

As a consequence of what I consider to be good customer service, I feel more self-assured in speaking French, and find myself doing so more instinctively when speaking with AMT employees.

It’s a pleasure, and why not? It’s pleasurable because I can rest assured that if, for whatever reason I’m not able to properly express myself in French, I could nonetheless still get excellent customer service in English. It’s comfortable.

Yes, it’s also a courtesy on the part of a publicly-funded corporation to a significant local minority. And it’s very much appreciated too. But make no mistake, it’s also a very smart business practice.

And guess what? Because the AMT prioritizes good customer service, they in turn are rewarded with an ever increasing number of clients, more revenue, funds for expansion etc.

As far as I’m concerned, the STM is no different than the AMT in terms of its linguistic obligations to its clientele. Hell, I think they should be amalgamated into a single transit agency for efficiency’s sake anyways, but that’s another article. If for no other reason they should do it because it’s just a really excellent business practice and it in no way threatens the linguistic sanctity of French in Montréal.

What pisses me off is that the STM, in my eyes rather clearly, lied to protect the status quo and because they’d rather do nothing than something. They didn’t consult their lawyers because the opinion may very well come back stipulating that the STM reverse course and offer bilingual customer service (as doing otherwise is in fact a violation of the Bill, and not something done in its defence) and the various powers at be simply couldn’t be bothered to have to deal with all the work.

I have my suspicions as to why they’re acting this way. I can imagine that there are in fact a number of people in the upper echelons of the STM who think this misinterpretation of the law is in fact counter-productive and potentially costing the STM vast additional revenue from the majority English-speaking tourists who are so vital to our local economy. But that doesn’t matter – I think they’re prevented from implementing bilingualism measures by a union with strong ties to militant syndicalist wing of the PQ. It’s probably not very popular among the unionized STM employees because it will change hiring practices, require additional training and doubtless the hiring of people other than old-stock Québecois Francophones, and promoting bilingualism is also anathema to the PQ’s agenda because of their ridiculous idea it will only result in the extinction of the French language in North America.

And if they went on strike, well, that isn’t good for anyone at all either. It’s an unfortunately risky situation we’ve created for ourselves with no easy solution.

We can’t ignore some unfortunate realities about the STM. Despite the excellent branding and brilliant marketing, despite the vast complexity and potent utility of the enterprise and the generally good work of its many employees, it remains a bit of an operational dinosaur.

Sure, there was a time long, long ago in which it wasn’t deemed necessary to have a bilingual public-transit workforce, but this is the 21st century, and Montréal is a global city now. Bilingual customer service ought to be a no-brainer; our public transit system is almost entirely unused by tourists and it’s this unnecessary language barrier which is to blame.

Worse still, the STM has cultivated a bad image as not only offering poor customer service, but being indifferent to people unable to speak French, if not being openly aggressive and racist towards minorities, including Anglophones.

You may remember a spate of incidents from last year in which Anglophones and Allophones were given a hard time by Métro ticket vendors and bus drivers for addressing them in English. One woman was attacked and beaten about the head by an irate kiosk-dweller at De la Savane back in October for speaking English.

And then there was the Columbian soccer player who claimed STM employees were visibly hostile and racist towards him. If I recall correctly, there was also an argument involving some clergyman from Hudson at Atwater Station and another incident in which a hand-made sign was posted at Villa-Maria, indicating in no uncertain terms that the STM’s employees will not serve you in English.

It’s been one of those years I guess; there were a few other racist incidents in which people were hassled or assaulted for speaking English (in public of all places!) in our fair city. The funny thing is that it’s more of the same – there are chapters in Mordecai Richler’s Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! that speak of similar incidents a quarter-century ago. Plus que ça change…

And of course it makes me wonder just how bad being a Métro station ticket-vendor actually is, which in turn makes me consider that the STM may pay its employees a lot (comparatively speaking), but it certainly doesn’t seem to offer much in terms of career advancement or stimulating work environment if all these people can waste company dime by being pricks. But I digress.

Something’s broken, and thanks to this new information it seems clearer still that those responsible for the STM have no real interest in fixing things. They know how apathetic the public can be, how it’s grown used to bad service over the years and that, try as they do, these kinds of stories never really stick. So it becomes another Montréal WTF. An absurd inconvenience and another reason we’re just not quite the world-class city we truly could be – if only we could work a little better together and leave the as-yet unreconciled disputes of the past to the historians, and move on with our lives trying to build a better city for tomorrow’s generation.

If only…

Why do we handicap ourselves in this way?

One thought on “Do the Right Thing”

  1. What gets me in the whole affair is that “good customer service” is independent of language.

    Every language incident at the STM has been badly served IMO as it having been interpreted and reported as a language issue. As a customer service issue, there’s no debate or question that what transpired is unacceptable.

    Hire uni-lingual Francophones. Who cares. But those employees can then serve English, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese customers to the best of their ability (and with a smile). Fact is, the same irate jerks who won’t serve you even politely in French because you didn’t pronounce your destination correctly are the same who will swear at you and point at the sign with the fares on it regardless of what language you use.

    Locked in box for x years is a shitty job prospect. But you’d think they’d learn to cherish the moments of human contact that they do get.

    And if that means picking up a few words in another language, then great. That’s what continued development and education get you.

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