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Human rights adjudicator can't decide workplace discrimination complaint: top court

OTTAWA — A labour arbitrator — not a human rights adjudicator — should weigh a complaint from a unionized Manitoba health-care aide who alleged discrimination by her employer, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.
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OTTAWA — A labour arbitrator — not a human rights adjudicator — should weigh a complaint from a unionized Manitoba health-care aide who alleged discrimination by her employer, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

The 6-1 decision Friday from the top court is likely to help clarify the appropriate venue for settling specific workplace grievances across the country when there is a question of which statute applies.

Linda Horrocks, who worked for Northern Regional Health Authority's personal care home in Flin Flon, Man., suffered from alcohol dependence, which the health authority agreed was a disability protected by both a collective agreement and Manitoba's Human Rights Code.

The health authority fired Horrocks in 2012 over alleged drinking outside the workplace, contrary to an agreement she abstain from alcohol.

The health authority maintained the steps were necessary to protect patients, while Horrocks said other options were available to accomplish the authority's goal.

Horrocks then filed a complaint under the provincial human rights code, not a grievance pursuant to the collective agreement.

An adjudicator appointed under the rights code concluded the health authority had breached the discrimination provisions of the code, given Horrocks' alcohol dependence disability.

A reviewing judge subsequently ruled the matter fell within the sole jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator, but the case then went to the provincial 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 its decision Friday, the Supreme Court said that where labour legislation provides for the final settlement of disputes arising from a collective agreement, the jurisdiction of the decision-maker empowered by that legislation — generally, a labour arbitrator — is exclusive.

"Competing statutory tribunals may carve into that sphere of exclusivity, but only where that legislative intent is clearly expressed," wrote Justice Russell Brown on behalf of the majority.

"In its essential character, Ms. Horrocks’ complaint alleges a violation of the collective agreement, and thus falls squarely within the arbitrator’s mandate."

Further, the provincial human rights code does not clearly express legislative intent to grant concurrent authority to the adjudicator over such disputes, he wrote

As a result, the reviewing judge’s order setting aside the adjudicator’s decision should be reinstated, the high court concluded.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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