He was Haiti-born Jean-Baptiste Jean
Like many Montrealers, Rachel Guénin has fond memories of her father dropping her and her sister off at the mall when they were young.
The only difference is, unlike most dads, their father, Jean-Baptiste Jean, was driving the 161 bus.
“That route would start at Rosemont and then it would go to Cavendish Mall and then he would just leave us there for the next trip,” said Guénin.
While at his side, the girls picked up their father’s routine.
“He would…teach us about the bus. I knew how to open the door, start the bus, just his whole process,” said Bernadette Jean, Guénin’s sister.
Jean, a Haitian Montrealer, was the city’s first Black bus driver in the 1970s and early 80s. He was recently honoured in the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) newsletter.
“It’s truly special…It’s something we always, growing up, knew about: the fact that he was one of the first Black bus drivers. We always had a lot of pride because of that,” said Bernadette Jean.
Born in 1935 in Pilate, Haiti, Jean-Baptiste Jean first moved to New York, where he worked as a taxi driver and as a receptionist at the United Nations. He then moved to Montreal in 1969, and began his bus driving career with the local school board, according to the STM.
The corporation’s newsletter highlights his work during the 1976 Olympic Games, when he “transported athletes from all over the world.”
Baptiste spent nine years as a city bus driver, until 1982 when he went on medical leave following a heart attack. He passed away in 1987.
And while the city’s public transit agency is honouring Jean’s legacy, his wife Nicole Vigne Jean said, in breaking barriers, her husband also faced abuse from some customers.
While it angered him to endure this treatment, Vigne Jean said her husband continued to treat customers with kindness and respect, and took pride in his work.
STM historian Benoît Clairoux said the public transit service only started recognizing diversity in the 80s. There were employees from various ethnic backgrounds before this time, but it wasn’t discussed, he said, making it difficult to find any mention in the corporation’s archives.
But after Guénin reached out to the STM, Clairoux started looking into Jean’s career at the STM.
Clairoux said Jean “really enjoyed his job” and knew he was one the first Black employees.
Clairoux was pleased to see the beautiful photos Jean’s family had kept of him in his uniform, and to hear that the family still had the powder blue jacket that he wore.
According to Clairoux, the transit corporation changed the colours of its uniforms from grey to blue around 1975, a few years after Jean started working as a driver.
“It was the same uniform, summer and winter. There was a time that you had to wear it every day…even if it was plus 30 degrees or minus 30 degrees,” said Clairoux. “You know it was like the military, you had your number, you had to shine your shoes.”
Clairoux said the photos of Jean in his uniform gave insight into how he viewed his work.
“You can see his pride of being a bus driver in Montreal,” he said.
Clairoux is hoping to find more Black bus drivers from Jean’s era to learn about their experiences. He said it’s shameful that for many years, employers shut the Black community out of certain jobs, such as bus driver or tram operator.
Clairoux believes that Expo 67 played a part in opening people’s eyes to the world, and led to some changes in hiring practices at the transit corporation.
Today, the STM says employees of colour, ethic minorities and Indigenous people make up more than a third of its staff.
Jean’s granddaughter, Nicole Antoine, said it’s amazing to know that her grandfather paved the way.