Back to school could happen without school buses for many children in Quebec

·2 min read
The majority of school service centres in Quebec are in negotiations with school transportation services to renew contracts that expired in June. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The majority of school service centres in Quebec are in negotiations with school transportation services to renew contracts that expired in June. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Two weeks away from the beginning of the school year, nearly 300,000 students in the Montreal area may not be able to take a school bus to class, as the province and transportation companies are at an impasse in their contract negotiations.

Ninety five per cent of school bus driver contracts in and around Montreal that expired in June have not been renewed, according to Luc Lafrance, the president of the federation representing the private transportation companies, the Fédération des transporteurs par autobus (FTA).

Lafrance said talks have been "stalling everywhere" because the government won't meet the companies' cost demands, which he said are higher this year due to the rise in inflation and lack of drivers.

"What the government is offering is insufficient to ensure transportation of the students," he said. "Several drivers left in the pandemic. It's not an easy job. We have to offer good conditions to be able to attract people."

'They're paid more to pour coffee than to drive kids'

Last school year, school bus company office workers and mechanics had to fill in because of the shortage of drivers, Lafrance said, adding he wants to be able to offer better salaries.

The contracts covering the regions of Montreal, Lanaudière and Montérégie are most at risk of causing a shortages of buses to ferry children to school once classes start, Lafrance said.

Andrew Jones owns two school bus companies servicing the Lester B. Pearson school board and Marguerite Bourgeoys service centre, both in the Montreal area, and says he has lost employees because of salaries.

"I recruited them from Tim Hortons and now they're going back to Tim Hortons," Jones said over the phone. "They're paid more to pour coffee than they are to drive kids."

He said that because of a lack of government financing, contracts with school boards and service centres have not kept pace with inflation, making it difficult to offer competitive pay. The average salary for a bus driver is between $18 and $19 an hour, but driver unions want that to be raised to $25.

Jones said he can't pay that without charging more for his transportation contracts. He said the issue was first raised by the companies as far back as January.

Quebec's Education Ministry said school service centres and school boards are responsible for negotiations.

"However, the ministry is working in concert with the school network to support them in this operation," spokesperson Esther Chouinard wrote in an email to CBC News.

"We are confident that we will arrive at a solution that will allow us to offer our students, as of the next school year, a quality service that is safe."