The Horrocks Decision: Human Rights and Unionized Workplaces in Canada

There is an important update regarding your ability to pursue Human Rights complaints in unionized workplaces in Canada (which includes your employment at the University of Lethbridge). The important point is that,
due to recent legal decision in Canada, where an issue that may be the subject of a Human Rights complaint arises in a unionized workplace in Alberta, the impacted employee will likely be unable to pursue an independent complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission and instead must pursue the issue through their union’s grievance process. This means that if you experience an issue in our workplace that may have violated your Human Rights as set out in the Alberta Human Rights Act, you should approach ULFA with your issue as soon as practically possible as there are time limits regarding what kind of action can be taken. 

The Background
In October 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision on “Northern Regional Health Authority v. Horrocks.” That case may be summarized briefly as follows: Linda Horrocks was employed by the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) in Manitoba. After being terminated by the NRHA, Horrocks alleged that she was discriminated against and filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. The NRHA argued that a claim of workplace discrimination should be decided by a labour arbitration rather than the Human Rights Commission. Via a series of court cases, the issue was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), which ruled that – depending on the legislative context of the province – labour arbitrators, and not human rights adjudicators, should hear and decide cases involving alleged workplace discrimination. You can read the entire SCC decision here.

Despite the SCC’s decision, it was not immediately clear how its ruling applied to each provincial jurisdiction due to the various ways in which each provisions Human Rights and Labour Relations legislation were written and implemented. In April 2023, a decision was delivered by the Alberta Human Rights Commission titled “Grewal v Sofina Foods Inc., 2023 AHRC 46.” You can access that decision here.

In “Grewal v Sofina Foods Inc.” Kathryn Oviatt – the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals of the Alberta Human Rights Commission – affirmed that the SCC’s ruling applied in the Alberta jurisdiction. As Oviatt writes in that decision, “ where there is a collective agreement that addresses human rights issues, grievance arbitration will usually be the more appropriate forum” and that “exceptions to that approach will be rare and only in the clearest of cases where the interests of justice demand it.” 

While legal matters are often complex and the results are not guaranteed, the two rulings cited above create a legal expectation that human rights issues in a workplace with a collective agreement should be addressed via the grievance procedure rather than through an individual complaint filed with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. This means that if you have a workplace human rights issue to be addressed, it must be brought to ULFA for consideration through the grievance procedure. ULFA will take such matters seriously.

What This Means for You
It is important to know that there are limitations to when a grievance or human rights complaint may be made. When making a complaint directly to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, an individual has one year from the date of the alleged human rights violation to make the complaint. According to Article 9.03.1 of our collective agreement, “A grievance shall be initiated within sixty (60) Working Days following the date upon which the violation, improper application or non-application of this Collective Agreement is alleged to have occurred, or on which the alleged violation should have become known to the Member, Association, or President.” Our collective agreement also includes all relevant legislation, including the Alberta Human Rights Act. This means that there are sixty working days from the date the human rights issue is known or reasonably ought to be known to file a grievance about the issue. In situations where the issue is not known or reasonably ought to have been known, the deadline to file a grievance will begin from the date the issue should have reasonably been known about. Other dates and deadlines also apply to how sixty working days is calculated from an event, such as holiday closures.

The most important thing for you to know is that if you believe there is a human rights issue that requires addressing in our workplace, please bring it to ULFA’s attention without delay. We can confidentially discuss the issue with you to determine what, if any, deadlines may be associated with filing a grievance about the matter, and we can support you in that process.