Friday, August 21, 2009

C’est dommage! VIA accused of failure to instruct in French

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Canada’s commissioner of official languages has launched two investigations into allegations VIA Rail Canada staff did not offer emergency instructions in French to 334 passengers who had to be evacuated from a train August 17.

Some passengers, including a journalist, reported emergency instructions were given only in English to passengers on board a train bound for Ottawa, the nation’s capital. Others, however, dispute this.

Member of Parliament Richard Nadeau said he would raise the issue with a House of Commons’ committee when Parliament resumes this fall.

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Catherine Kaloutsky, a VIA Rail spokeswoman, said the company “is not disputing” that some customers heard messages only in English. But, she said, there are reports other customers heard messages in French and in English. Staff on board spoke French and VIA has only hired bilingual front-lineworkers since 1985, she said.

Moreover, Anne Marie Harbec, a passenger on board the train, said she witnessed VIA Rail employees giving instructions in French. “They went above and beyond, I certainly have a lot of praise for how they handled it,” Harbec said. She added that some firefighters or fellow passengers who volunteered to help with the evacuation effort may have been unilingual, “but I don’t think VIA can do anything about that.”

Notwithstanding such observations, VIA Rail has issued an official apology and said it was launching its own investigation, saying it is interviewing the staff on board and reviewing its emergency response, including why messages from its megaphone weren’t clear.