Quebec taxi drivers stop working, slow traffic over proposed changes to industry – CBC.ca

Quebec taxi drivers stop working, slow traffic over proposed changes to industry - CBC.ca
Gatineau taxi drivers on strike Monday as part of province-wide protest
Quebecers hoping to call a taxi today are mostly out of luck as drivers across the province continue their day of protest against the provincial government's proposed law to deregulate the taxi industry.

"People need to understand something: The government created this," said George Boussios, president of Champlain Taxi and the spokesperson for Taxis du Grand Montréal, an association of Montreal taxi companies.

Drivers were airing their frustration at Transport Minister François Bonnardel, who proposed a law last week that would eliminate the valuable permits that are needed in order to drive a taxi in Quebec. The province first issued the permits decades ago, but has not added more permits in decades, causing their value to skyrocket to more than $200,000 in some regions. The permits are bought and sold on the secondary market, and some permit holders had banked on the increase in value as retirement income.

Quebec taxi drivers snarl traffic with daylong protest over permits

If passed, Bill 17 would abolish those taxi permits while removing territorial restrictions and imposing a single set of requirements on all operators.

“I have no choice but to be here today,” said Rick Lopez, one of the drivers protesting on Monday. “We have been robbed. I worked 12 years to pay off my licence, and it’s still not paid, and my house is connected to this mortgage. The government is listening to the Uber lobby and letting everyone in, but there’s no cohabitation possible with Uber.”

Taxi drivers argue the law would bankrupt an industry already struggling under the weight of competing ride-hailing services.

They drove in a slow convoy along Highway 40 West and Highway 15 South toward the airport in the morning, starting from Anjou at 7 a.m., and from the Cosmodôme in Laval. Traffic was also affected on the Côte-de-Liesse expressway toward the airport, and on Highway 20 East, where drivers stopped for several minutes before resuming a slow crawl to downtown.

There are about 8,800 taxi permits in Quebec and each permit costs between $150,000 and $200,000. The province has earmarked $500 million to compensate drivers. That works out to roughly $57,000 per driver.

The transit authority also reminded those with flights to catch that its 747 bus line linking downtown Montreal with Trudeau airport remains in service. The STM had put more buses on that route on Monday. However, since it runs along René-Lévesque Blvd. and Highway 20, many of the buses were delayed by the protest.

Hassan Hachem remortgaged his house to buy his taxi permit for more than $150,000. He's worried he won't be able to afford his mortgage payments if the new law is approved.

Taxi drivers bring Cote-de-Liesse to a halt during a strike by taxi drivers as they protest new legislation deregulating parts of the taxi industry in Montreal, on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Allen McInnis / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 62297   Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

"We don't want to be Uber, you know," he said. "We like to be like a traditional taxi, like everywhere in the world."

Costa Kouremenos forked over $210,000 for his permit 10 years ago. The Montreal taxi driver has been picking up fares in the city for more than two decades, but he still owes $30,000 for that permit.

Police block taxis from entering the Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau Airport during a strike by taxi drivers as they protest new legislation deregulating parts of the taxi industry in Montreal, on Monday, March 25, 2019.   Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

"It's just not right what's going on with this government," he told Daybreak on Monday. "It's absolutely wrong what they're doing."

The new law would eliminate the requirement for permits, and level the playing field with ride-hailing applications like Uber, which has been offering service for several years in Quebec without drivers having to purchase taxi driving permits.

He hit the streets Monday, protesting alongside fellow drivers who paraded slowly down busy highways including the 720, 40 and 15. There were similar protests across the province.

They blared car horns as they parked their cars for several blocks on René-Lévesque Blvd., with the head of the convoy stopping at the offices of Transport Quebec, at the corner of Beaver Hall Hill between noon and about 2 p.m.

In Montreal, there were some traffic slowdowns but, at the airport, the taxi queues were empty — travellers either grabbed an Uber or hailed one of the taxi drivers that was shrugging off the protest.

Drivers say the law will make their permits worthless. The Quebec government intends to spend up to $500 million to compensate the drivers for the lost value of their permits, but Bonnardel said the arrangement has yet to be worked out.

In Sherbrooke, the protest was a bit quieter. With not much competition from Uber, drivers there have decided they don't want to disrupt customers' lives as much and instead decided to strike only from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Police try to keep one lane open on highway 40 during a strike by taxi drivers as they protest new legislation deregulating parts of the taxi industry in Montreal, on Monday, March 25, 2019.   Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

As of Sunday afternoon, four of Gatineau's five major taxi company owners — Aylmer Taxi, Bob Taxi, Crown/Régal and Taxi Loyal — had told Radio-Canada they intended to take part.

Taxi drivers' representatives are scheduled to meet Transport Minister François Bonnardel on Tuesday to discuss their grievances.

Taxi drivers bring Cote-de-Liesse to a halt during a strike by taxi drivers as they protest new legislation deregulating parts of the taxi industry in Montreal, on Monday, March 25, 2019.   Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

"It's their right not to provide service, but the dialogue will remain open with the industry to make an effective and respectful transition," the minister's office said Monday.

Among the drivers stuck in traffic caused by the protest was Isabelle Rousseau, who was trying to make her way to St-Denis St. and was parked in front of the Queen Elizabeth hotel on René-Lévesque Blvd.

"We find it unfortunate that taxi drivers are putting off their customers, especially since a meeting is scheduled tomorrow between the minister and the industry representatives to discuss the bill and the compensation program."

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

Files: MONTREAL, QC.: FEBRUARY 10, 2016 — Montreal's taxi driver Abdel Ghani marches toward the P.E. Trudeau Airport to protest against Uber, on Wednesday February 10, 2016, Giovanni Capriotti / Postmedia

Were not naïve. Our fight is not to get rid of Uber, our fight is to keep our industry alive. Our fight has always been to modernize, he said. I dont see any modernization in his plan, I see elimination, expropriation. Boussios pointed to the measures the industry has taken in recent years, including implementing an app, moving toward using hybrid vehicles (80 per cent of the taxi fleet is hybrid, Boussios said), and using uniform signage on taxi vehicles. We followed all the rules and regulations – in good faith, I may add – and they just turned around and said thank you for spending all that money on apps, thank you for spending all that money on your call centres… and spending money on hybrid cars… thank you so much, but we dont need you anymore, he added.  

Taxis were not operating in Gatineau on Monday as drivers joined a province-wide strike to protest against provincial legislation that would deregulate the industry.

The legislation introduced last week will destroy the taxi industry, said Georges Nohra, who owns a plate and operates Georgis Taxi in Aylmer.

We work 16 hours every day and every driver doesnt see his family. Many problems exist because of this, he said. Lots of depression, lots of people get sick. Bonnardel reiterated his stance Monday, adding that drivers will not see a penny more in compensation. "Half a billion is a lot of money. Its a final amount for us," he said. "Its a bill that we tabled for the client first, and like I said, its to find a balance between the new technology and the taxi industry as we know it for 50 years in Quebec." Drivers want to modernize Boussios said the taxi industrys goal isnt to eliminate ride-sharing apps, its to be more competitive.

Bill 17 would deregulate the industry that transports people by removing costly requirements to drive a taxi and by allowing variable rates for their services, as is the case with Uber and other ride apps.

If the legislation is passed, the value of a taxi licence plate would plummet to virtually nothing, said Nohra in an interview Monday morning.

Taxi drivers have mortgaged their houses to buy plates in Gatineau for $200,000 to $250,000, said Nohra. Thousands of people in the province are supported by the income earned by taxi drivers, he said.

About 100 taxis drove slowly around Place du Portage in Gatineau Monday (March 25, 2019) in protest of the planned provincial legislation that will deregulate the industry. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

Some drivers said that the $500 million that will be given to drivers as compensation doesnt do enough, given the fall in value of taxi permits over the past few years.

Nohra said he was also concerned that safety will be compromised under de-regulation. “You can get your wife’s car and put a plate on it, just fill in an application … the safety won’t be as good.”

About 180 cabs in Gatineau were participating in the protest, said Toni Fadel, owner of Bob Taxi. Drivers, however, were providing “essential services,” such as rides for people who need to travel for medical reasons, he said.

We want the minister to upgrade Uber or all those applications to the level of taxi, said one driver. Not downgrade taxi to the level of this chaos.

Gatineau taxi drivers planned to converge around noon on Monday around the Place du Portage government complex, but their goal was not to tie up traffic, he said.

The strike was confirmed Sunday afternoon when more than 1,000 taxi drivers and owners from around the province held a meeting in Montreal to discuss protest tactics.

The strike is the first of other protest gestures to come, said spokesmen for Quebec’s taxi associations. They said the tactics will not stop until Bill 17 is withdrawn.

Taxi groups are set to sit down with Transport Minister Francois Bonnardel on Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel announced the government would give $500 million to taxi drivers as compensation for the bill that would shake up the taxi industry if adopted — an amount derided as “peanuts” by people at the Sunday meeting.

Taxi Co-Op de LOuest driver Souheil Saade said the matter is about who follows the law and who doesnt.

About 100 taxis drove slowly around Place du Portage in Gatineau Monday (March 25, 2019) in protest of the planned provincial legislation that will deregulate the industry. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

Calling the bill “irresponsible” and “inhuman,” speakers said it would force many drivers and owners into bankruptcy. “We want to protect our permits and the value of those permits,” said one.

Owners fear that taxi permits could eventually worthless if the law is passed. Already their value has decreased since the introduction of Uber and other ride-sharing apps.

Serge Lebreux, spokesperson for the Association des taxis des régions du Québec, said that, with the bill, the transport minister is attacking a symbol of multi-ethnicity. Many taxi drivers are immigrants.

Antonella Scalia Arcuri, who attended Sunday’s meeting, had five permits left to her when her husband died in 2012 at 41 of a brain aneurysm. The couple had been married for 30 months; their son was 17 months old and their daughter four months old.

“I was lucky,” she said. Friends of her husband and the general manager of Taxi Coop de l’Est, Joseph Naufal, “all joined to help me to catch up with the business.”

She has five drivers driving for her, some who have been on the job since her husband was alive. The taxis are her only source of income and she has been able to get by. “I don’t live glamorously. No vacations. My priority is taking care of my kids and making sure my drivers are happy,” she said. “My drivers even know my kids. It’s almost like a family bond.”

“One of my drivers just bought a house,” she said. “This is the worst thing the government could do to us. Where’s the humanity? What they are trying to is ruining the industry and families built on it.”