By Kashif Masud Awan
April 28, 2014
It was March 13, 2014 – a pleasant morning in Ottawa, the capital of Canada – when I boarded an OcTranspo bus from the University of Ottawa to go to Carleton University for some laboratory experiments.
I was very happy since my wife and child were to join me in Canada within three days after almost 10 months. They had faced some trouble with getting a visa initially and at one point I had almost thought of quitting my PhD fellowship. So it was with a feeling of contentment that everything was finally sorted and there would be a smooth road ahead, that I boarded that bus.
Suddenly, I saw that the bus driver was waving in the rear view mirror. I looked around, realising I was the only passenger; I stood up and went to him. As I approached, I heard him ask for the bus ticket. I took out my wallet, showed him the student bus pass and politely said that the rear bus door clearly had a sign stating that people with bus passes can board from the rear door. The bus driver yelled back at me quite angrily,
“But this is an Express, you a*s#@|e!”
My jaw dropped and for a moment I simply stood there in shock and staring at the bus driver. I couldn’t believe what he had just said and I didn’t understand why he had said it. This was the first time in 28 years on this planet that I had been called an A*s#@|e. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done or said anything to deserve that.
I took hold of myself and asked,
“Is this how you treat people in this country?”
And he shouted back,
“Yes, this is how we treat people in this country!”
As much as I wanted to punch him in the face or at least hurl some abuses at him, I somehow managed to calm myself down and instead asked him to stop the bus because I wanted to call the OcTranspo supervisor and report the matter to him. Obviously, the bus driver wanted me to do nothing of the sort and tried to drive off but I managed to get off the bus, noted its unique four-digit number and called the OcTranspo complaint centre.
The call centre lady took down my complaint and I asked her to keep me informed of the action that OcTranspo would take against the bus driver. However, she said that they would not be able to tell me about the investigation and action and based on her response, I began to doubt whether the company would actually do anything about my complaint at all.
I was infuriated because all the buses in Canada are equipped with multiple cameras and OcTranspo could have reviewed what had actually happened. But instead of appeasing me, the public transit company of the federal capital of Canada seemed to take no notice of a passenger’s very valid complaint.
My perfect day was destroyed and I couldn’t understand why that bus driver had abused me for no reason and why OcTranspo was unwilling to do anything about it. Being thousands of kilometres away from my country, family and people, I started to feel like an unwanted alien.
This is a feeling that only foreigners can understand in a country where you are easily identified as ‘not from here’. This feeling of alienation and hostility stayed with me the entire day and even my work in the laboratory was affected. I just couldn’t get over the fact that I had been abused, unprovoked, by a complete stranger.
I personally felt like I had been racially discriminated against since my religion and ethnicity were obvious from my appearance.
Disturbed by this incident and the lack of accountability by the concerned party, I approached the university’s international office, the legal clinic, the student federation and even the employee union since I was a teaching assistant and hence, an employee. However, no one was willing or able to guide me as to what action to take against OcTranspo.
Although I am an engineer, I have a passion for politics and being an avid reader of current affairs, I followed two local daily newspapers, the Metro and Ottawa Sun. Being a regular follower, I knew they carried such stories; in fact, I had even come across entire features dedicated to the abuse of animals. And hence, I approached both dailies with my story. However, I was surprised and further dejected when both the newspapers refused to carry my story.
I realised that this country had more rights for cats and dogs than for international students.
I had never faced a situation like this, even during my two-year studies in Scotland and Sweden, and had, so far, believed that Canada had negligible racism and gave adequate rights to its immigrant population. But this incident proved me wrong.
Not admitting defeat, I decided to channel my anger into a productive cause. I figured that there must be many international students who never reported incidents of verbal and perhaps, even physical hatred and abuse. I made up my mind that I would stand up for the rights of international students on and off campus for the rest of my stay at the University of Ottawa.
Although I continue to raise my voice against racial discrimination and advocate for immigrant rights, it has been over a month since that incident with OcTranspo and I haven’t received any reply regarding my complaint from the bus company, any university employee or department. However, being a student member of the university senate, I have been recently elected to represent the graduate students of Science and Engineering and I take this as a positive indication of increasing acceptance and inclusion of international students.
This has given me hope that even though I am an ‘outsider’ in this country and community but if I want to defend my right to respect and equality, I must stand up for it and somehow, somewhere, it will bring about a change for me and for others like me.
I do hope that the concerned authorities look into the matter with OcTranspo and if nothing else, I hope that my efforts will spare other people from facing undue discrimination and racism.