The MRC du Haut-Saint-Laurent has been providing free public transportation on routes linking the Valley to Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and Mercier since January 2021, when the public service replaced the buses previously operated by the Exo public transit authority. The route from Mercier to Ormstown has traditionally been used by students living in Mercier and Chateauguay to travel to and from Chateauguay Valley Regional High School (CVR). As of the end of September, however, CVR students have been banned from the public transit system.
According to the MRC, the behaviour of some of the students as well as the overall shortage of bus drivers left them with little choice. Director general Pierre Caza says the students’ unruly behaviour resulted in three bus drivers refusing to drive that specific route. Regular users were also starting to avoid the route. “A lot of people stopped using the service because of a problem with a lack of discipline on the bus.”
Caza says that he was not made aware of the number of CVR students who planned to use the service. Currently, there are over 20 students who require transportation to CVR and only 24 seats on the bus, which can lead to situations where other citizens are turned away for lack of space. Caza emphasizes that they run a public bus system, not a school bus system. The drivers are not trained and are not expected to manage or discipline students. “The school has the approach to school transportation where there is a sliding scale in the ways they can intervene. We do not have this option in public transportation. We don’t have to follow the school’s rules regarding transportation,” he explains. Caza expresses that he met with CVR principal Anick Leclerc on two occasions to discuss the situation.
Caza acknowledges that students from other schools may also be using the MRC buses, which are run by Autobus La Québécoise. “For us, it was that route [Mercier-Ormstown] that was problematic. Are there other students who are riding the bus? I don’t know, I’ve never been informed of that. But the problems have been with this route since 2021.”
Rob Buttars, the director general of the New Frontiers School Board, confirms that the MRC contacted CVR on September 23 with the complaints. Letters were sent home the same day to parents whose children rely on this bus for transportation to the school. Leclerc explained there would be consequences if there was no improvement in the students’ behaviour. “They have given us a few days to rectify the situation,” she said; otherwise, “They will find themselves obliged to deny access to this service for all of our students who are currently embarking in Mercier, Sainte-Martine, or Howick.”
Buttars says that the following day, “CVR was contacted yet again saying that students would need photo ID for the bus ride on Monday (September 26).”
Four days later, on September 27, Leclerc issued another update to all parents of students affected that read, “I want to thank you for your collective effort and support in supplying a photo identification for your child yesterday morning. The chaperone [provided by the MRC] that accompanied the driver confirmed that 75 per cent of our students presented a valid ID upon boarding the bus. With this gesture, we proved that we were invested and interested in maintaining this precious service.” However, this was not enough to keep the service going; the communication continued by saying, “Unfortunately, our efforts were not sufficient. On Monday, following a revision of our dossier, the MRC and La Quebecoise decided to terminate the round-trip transportation service from Mercier to Ormstown [CVR].”
Caza confirms that, in fact, the route is still running, but that it is no longer available to CVR students.
A complicated situation
CVR is not able to offer transportation to the affected students because all students residing in Mercier and Chateauguay are zoned for Howard S. Billings High School (HSB). Buttars explains that “It must be understood that when parents make this choice, the responsibility for transportation is with them. We do not transport students to out-of-zone schools when families go there by choice.”
Pamela Bussey, a teacher at CVR, expressed her frustration with the approach the MRC has taken, especially considering the bus is a free public service. “Unfortunately, I think part of being a bus driver, like part of being a teacher, is that you’re going to have to deal with some antisocial behavior because you are working within society and within the community,” she explains.
Valéry Pelletier, a parent of one of the affected students, says the decision was abrupt and didn’t allow for much time to prepare or adjust to the sudden change. Pelletier did not receive the initial letter from CVR, only the second one which was sent days before the service was ended. “I was then told by another parent that you can ask the school board for a derogation of transportation… I was made aware of that on the 29th, on the Thursday, and we had until the 30th at 3 p.m. to send in the request with a $200 cheque.” She was not made aware of this option from CVR or the school board.
While the request went through, Pelletier and some other parents organized a temporary carpool. Her son’s request was then approved, but this was not the case for everyone. Her son now travels to Sainte-Martine, where he boards a school bus that takes him to Howick. He then transfers onto another bus destined for CVR. Both she and her husband have had to change their work schedules to accommodate this new routine.
Jocelyne Beaudet, who is Pelletier’s mother, says that another parent’s child was able to board the bus one day. The following day they tried again, but the driver said the bus was having issues and they could not board. The parent then followed the bus to the next stop, where it appeared to be running as usual. When the parent inquired about this, the driver claimed not to speak English. Both Pelletier and Bussey have tried to contact Autobus La Quebecoise to speak with a representative, but to no avail.
Buttars says that at this time, “There is little the school, or the school board, can do.” Caza suggests he is not sure if or when this service will become available to CVR students again. Parents, however, are still hoping to find a solution. “I’m fighting the city. I’m fighting the school board. I’m fighting anybody and everybody who can listen at this point, because this cannot be a solution!” Pelletier exclaims.