Human rights panel can’t decide work complaints: Supreme Court

High court rules in case of Flin Flon worker

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OTTAWA — The Supreme Court has ruled a Manitoba health-care aide, who was fired for being intoxicated at work, cannot argue her case before a human rights tribunal because the matter is covered by her union agreement.

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This article was published 22/10/2021 (297 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — The Supreme Court has ruled a Manitoba health-care aide, who was fired for being intoxicated at work, cannot argue her case before a human rights tribunal because the matter is covered by her union agreement.

The high court ruled that anything covered by a collective agreement, including discrimination, can’t be dealt with by other tribunals, unless provinces change their labour laws.

Linda Horrocks of Flin Flon, who now stocks shelves at Walmart, says she’ll try to get her job back.

The Supreme Court of Canada (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

The Northern Regional Health Authority fired Horrocks from her position at a personal care home after she worked while intoxicated, court records show.

Horrocks was first fired in 2011, but her union argued her case. She got the job back after signing an agreement with the health authority — against the advice of her union — stipulating that any alcohol consumption for two years would be considered grounds for dismissal.

Before she returned to work, she was observed to be intoxicated, and again fired in 2012, court heard.

Instead of going back to her union, Horrocks opted to file a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, and successfully argued her employer discriminated against her on the basis of a disability, specifically alcoholism.

The health authority appealed the ruling, arguing that the human rights tribunal couldn’t weigh in on issues of discrimination when those are part of a collective agreement.

A reviewing judge subsequently ruled the matter fell within the sole jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator, but the case then went to the Manitoba Court of Appeal. The appeal court sent the matter back to the reviewing judge to determine whether the decision of the adjudicator and the remedies she ordered were reasonable in law.

In 2017, the health authority took the case to the Supreme Court to get clarity. Despite having its own ruling challenged, the human rights commission welcomed the case, saying the Supreme Court could give much-needed clarity over what channels unionized employees can use to argue discrimination cases.

In a 6-1 decision Friday, the justices sided with the health authority, ruling that if human rights issues are part of any collective agreement, employees must first go through grievance and labour arbitration before taking the matter to a tribunal.

The justices said the procedure is laid out in Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act, and that the legislature would have to amend the law if it wanted employees to have another recourse.

“It’s going to have a negative impact on the protection of human rights for average, working people in Canada,” Horrocks’ lawyer Paul Champ told the Free Press.

“In Manitoba, it’s slammed the door to access to human rights boards of inquiry for unionized employees,” he argued.

“The court has said that labour relations legislation are paramount to human rights statutes in every circumstance.”

The one dissenting judge argued that labour unions and human-rights tribunals should have concurrent jurisdiction, because an arbitrator can deal with an employee’s specific issues, while a commission can implement systemic changes.

That dissenting judge argued that labour arbitration should come first, but that employees should still have another option if the union opts against supporting their grievance.

Champ spoke with Horrocks Friday morning after the decision was released, just as she had finished the night shift stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart. Prior to that, the 64-year-old was unemployed, and cleaned houses.

“Her life took a very different turn… all because of, in our view, stereotypical attitudes about people who may have alcoholism,” Champ argued.

He said Horrocks plans to file a union grievance and her employer offered to waive the normal time limitations because the matter had been held up in the court.

“She’s a braver person than me,” he said.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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