A professional soccer player from Colombia claims ticket-takers at a Montreal metro station refused to let him ride the subway because he spoke to them in English.
Miguel Montano, a midfielder with the Montreal Impact, claims he was the victim of a "racist" language-based incident involving transit employees and filed a complaint.
The 20-year-old Impact reservist started by calling Montreal a racist city as he described the incident on social media — but he later backpedalled, and apologized if he offended people.
The incident occurred as Montano and another Impact player, French-born Hassoun Camara, were riding the metro Wednesday morning.
Montano, who doesn't speak French, attempted to buy a subway ticket in English and was allegedly rebuffed by employees, who told him that he needed to speak French and his money was returned to him.
Furious, Montano took to Twitter and wrote about the incident in a pair of tweets.
"They are so racist in Montreal," he wrote in Spanish. "They didn't want to sell me a ticket to let me in the metro because I don't speak French."
He later added that the ticket-taker told him: "'If you live in Montreal, you need to speak French.' I spoke to him in English and he said NO (in) French and he gave me back my cash."
Montano filed a formal complaint. Several hours after the incident, as the story appeared in the media, the soccer player toned down his attack on the city.
Montano said in the later tweets that he had experienced an unacceptable situation that made him very angry, and that's what prompted him to write his comment. He apologized if he offended anyone.
"Montreal is not a racist city," he added.
The Impact, in their inaugural season in Major League Soccer, confirmed the "unfortunate incident" on the metro.
The club said that while Montano spoke no French, Camara is actually from France and he also witnessed the incident. The club said in a statement that Camara has also filed a complaint with the authority for discriminatory behaviour.
A spokeswoman for the authority confirmed it will investigate after receiving a formal complaint. Spokeswoman Marianne Rouette said there's a zero-tolerance policy for racism and transit employees know it.
As for the complaint about language, Rouette said the transit system is governed by the province's French Language Charter.
That means no public employee is forced to speak any language other than French, although many employees happen to be bilingual or multilingual and can choose to speak other languages, she said.
In Quebec, tensions over a perceived increase in the use of English in the workplace — and decline of French — have been simmering over the past year.
It began with people who can't speak French being named to key federal positions in Ottawa. That was followed by a series of news reports about companies, in Montreal, hiring senior executives who can't speak French and forcing the rest of the staff to switch meetings to English.
But the issue reached its emotional peak when, in the midst of that climate, the Montreal Canadiens hired for the first time in decades a coach who couldn't speak French. That interim coach, Randy Cunneyworth, has since been replaced.
But one vocal Montreal group says the metro incident has more to do with race — not language.
Fo Niemi, an anti-racism advocate, said in an email that visible minorities are often treated dismissively by transit workers.
"We often hear of this kind of treatment which goes beyond language, it is about the attitude towards public transit users from racialized persons," said Niemi, the executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations. Niemi says there have been other complaints in the past about rudeness but they have gotten little attention.
The authority says it's not sure how long an investigation might take.
Montano has played in Montreal since last August, when he was loaned to the club, and was re-signed in December to play for the new MLS outfit.