Mike Landry has picked up a lot of passengers in his 19 years as a bus driver — but something else he’s picked up has delighted his Brampton, Ont., riders and made him something of a local celebrity.
With the help of passengers, Landry has been learning Punjabi, one of the most widely spoken languages in the Toronto-area city.
It all started about four years ago, when a group of young men were taking the bus home after their night shifts. At the time, Landry knew just one word of Punjabi.
“Satsriakaal,” he said to them, a greeting used among Sikhs.
At first, he says, they couldn’t believe their ears. Then things took off.
Landry started learning more words from the young men and tried them out on other passengers.
“I could see the appreciation,” said Landry, who’s originally from New Brunswick.
“I was picking it up fairly quick, so they just started adding more words and vocabulary. I was having a ball with it.”
“A small thing like ‘satsriakaal’ would open everything. And that to them was a whole world of respect.”
The reaction was so positive that Landry took out a library book to get a better grasp of Punjabi’s structure, expand his vocabulary and learn how to conjugate verbs.
Passengers started speaking to him for their entire trips, filming their interactions and posting them online, where they’ve been attracting plenty of attention.
“You start to make friends,” he said, as riders connected with him.
“When there’s laughter on the bus, there’s that joy and that kind of spirit … You look forward to coming to work.”
Landry hasn’t stopped at Punjabi. He’s also dipped his toes into Gujarati, the second-most spoken language in Brampton.
“Kem cho?” he says when Gujarati-speakers board his bus, asking how they’re doing.
He also hopes to visit India eventually to immerse himself in the languages for a month or two at a time.
‘It makes us happy’
The first time passenger Gautam Dharni heard Landry speaking Punjabi, he says he was happily surprised.
“It was something different for me. I felt really great, I was excited,” Dharni said, adding that a bus driver who can communicate in the language is an especially good thing for elderly Punjabi speakers, who may need help with directions but might not have a strong grasp of English.
Manpreet Kaur says she was shocked when she first heard Punjabi coming from Landry.
“We were very surprised that our culture has spread everywhere,” she said, adding it made her feel instantly comfortable with him.
“We weren’t expecting it,” said Jagtar Singh, who’s been on the route with Landry twice now. “It makes us happy… I really appreciate him.”
‘Not here to impart any wisdom’
For Landry, the best part is the difference it makes for passengers who are new to the country and have often only been in Brampton for a few years.
“Most of the passengers I speak to, they’re just landed in Canada … When somebody makes the effort to learn a little bit, they appreciate it to no end.”
But while videos of him interacting with passengers are making the rounds on social media, Landry says he has no “grand aspirations to change minds.”
“I’m not here to impart any wisdom,” he says sheepishly.
Asked why he thinks so many are sharing videos of him, he says it’s probably because sharing languages “brings us together more than it divides us. It may be as simple as that. And if it breaks some cultural barriers too, then so be it.
“Maybe there’s some good out of it you know?”