Singh et al. v. Montréal Gateways Terminals et
On September 21, 2016, the Honourable Mr. Justice André
Prévost of the Superior Court rendered judgment in the case
of Singh et al. v. Montréal Gateways Terminals
et al. In this decision, the Court confirmed that the operator
of a marine terminal may require persons of the Sikh religion to
wear a protective helmet over their turbans, notwithstanding their
religious beliefs prohibiting such a practice, where there is a
real risk of an accident to justify such a requirement.
The plaintiffs were Sikh truck drivers whose work included
transporting containers. When they reached the Port of
Montréal, Montréal Gateways Terminals
("MGT") the largest terminal operating company in the
Port, obliged them to put on protective helmets over their turbans
while they were circulating on the terminal outside their vehicles,
in compliance with their legal obligations under the Criminal
Code and the Canada Labour Code. The truckers
complained that such a measure was discriminatory, violating their
right of freedom of religion. They applied to be exempted from
wearing the hard hats. Refusing that application, MGT first
attempted to accommodate them, by developing an alternative
container loading procedure. MGT eventually discontinued the
measure, as it proved to be ineffective and constraining. For their
part, the plaintiffs never cooperated in developing any alternative
accommodation solution; they merely demanded an exemption from the
rule on wearing the hard hats.
Mr. Justice Prévost analyzed the issue of discrimination
under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the
Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. He
confirmed that there was a substantial risk of head injuries for
the truck drivers when they were required to circulate outside
their vehicles on the premises of the marine terminals in the Port
of Montréal, regardless of the number of head injuries
reported among truckers over the years. He therefore concluded that
there was no discrimination, since the wearing of the protective
helmets was a measure that applied to all persons moving in and
around the Port of Montréal's terminals, and it was the
best way of eliminating the risks associated with head injuries.
Those risks were the same for all persons circulating on the
premises of the marine terminals, whether they were truck drivers,
visitors or employees.
Although Justice Prévost did find that the policy was
prima facie discriminatory as regards the plaintiffs, he
nevertheless held that its adoption was fully justified. The policy
was designed to comply with legal obligations, was adopted in good
faith by MGT and was reasonably necessary for the work of the truck
drivers concerned. Although MGT had attempted to accommodate the
plaintiffs, no other alternative measure could enable them to
perform their work in safe working conditions. For those reasons,
the policy was completely justified.
The Superior Court further held that the policy did not violate
the right to freedom of religion provided for by the Québec
Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. In short,
Prévost J. concluded that the benefits of MGT's policy
outweighed its prejudicial effects as regards the religious freedom
of the plaintiffs and that, although they had shown that the policy
did in fact affect their freedom of religion, that those
infringements were justified under the Québec Charter of
Human Rights and Freedoms.
This is a judgment of major importance for employers. It
maintains that the obligation to care for the health and safety of
all concerned, and not merely of one's employees, may be
incompatible with the requirements of any one religion. The
judgment does not, however, change the state of the law concerning
the duty of accommodation. It does, nevertheless, remind us that
the obligation of reasonable accommodation is one that requires the
cooperation of each of the parties involved; in other words, that
they must all be proactive in seeking alternative solutions.
Finally, this is one of the rare cases where a judge has applied
the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in
the context of labour relations involving a federally-regulated
business enterprise. This judgment suggests that such enterprises,
going forward, may well have to comply not only with federal human
rights legislation, but also with provincial human rights charters,
depending on the circumstances of the case at bar.
Unfortunately, reasonable accommodation for employees in the workplace continues to be the source of significant litigation and even today we continue to see outrageous examples of employers behaving badly.
We are now beginning to see reported cases involving charges and subsequent fines laid against employers for failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect a worker from workplace violence.
On October 13, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal an Ontario Court of Appeal decision which ordered an employer to pay a former employee 37 months of salary and benefits following termination.
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