Despite the best intentions, it is not always possible to
accommodate the religious practices of workers. In the case of
Singh v. Montreal Gateway Terminals1,
the Quebec Superior Court held that port terminal operator Montreal
Gateway Terminals ("MGT"), because of its workplace
safety obligations, was entitled to require Sikh truck drivers to
wear a hardhat on top of their turban while in the workplace.
In July, 2005, MGT adopted a policy requiring all truck drivers
operating within its port terminals to wear a hardhat. The
plaintiffs, three truck drivers professing the Sikh religion,
refused to do so. MGT attempted to accommodate them by having other
operators supervise the loading of their trucks while the drivers
remained inside the vehicle. That however proved to be unworkable
and the truck drivers subsequently went to court seeking a
declaratory judgment exempting them from complying with MGT's
obligatory hardhat policy.
The parties' positions
The truck drivers alleged that they were being discriminated
against based on their religion.
MGT maintained that there was no discrimination inherent in the
situation. And even if there were, such discrimination would be
justified. It also argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights
and Freedoms (the "Canadian Charter") did not apply
in this instance.
The Court first of all ruled out the application of the Canadian
Charter because the parties to the dispute were two private
businesses. It found however that the Canadian Human Rights
Act (the "CHRA") and the Quebec Charter of Human
Rights and Freedoms (the "Quebec Charter") did
Insofar as the CHRA applied, the Court concluded that prima
facie there was discrimination because it was impossible to
reconcile the defendant's safety policy with the
plaintiffs' religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the policy was
justified because it was:
adopted for a purpose rationally
connected to the requirements of the truck drivers' employment
adopted for the legitimate objective
of ensuring the safety of truck drivers;
reasonably necessary, in light of the
absence of any evidence of an effective accommodation measure, for
the performance of the truck drivers' employment duties.
Insofar as the Quebec Charter applied, the Court concluded that
the infringement upon the employees' freedom of religion was
also justified, stating the following in that regard
"325. In any event, the beneficial effects
of the Policy, i.e. ensuring the safety of persons working at the
defendant's terminals, outweigh the harmful effects on the
defendants, which consist of wearing a hardhat for five or ten
minutes while on foot within the precincts of the port for receipt
or delivery purposes or, alternatively, their decision to no longer
convey containers to and from the defendant's
In 1985 the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that wearing a
hardhat was an appropriate occupational requirement for employees
of Canadian National Railway Company, including an employee
professing the Sikh religion2. In that case, employees
were required to wear a hardhat at all times while at work, and not
just for a few minutes per day. In the case we are dealing with
here, what is interesting is that the validity of the policy was
upheld in a situation where the plaintiffs were only required to
wear a hardhat for five or ten minutes.
The burden of establishing that a measure is necessary to ensure
the safety of persons in the workplace is on the employer. In this
case, MGT was able to establish that despite the limited period of
exposure to the risk and the absence of any record of head injuries
suffered by truck drivers, the seriousness of the danger justified
wearing a hardhat.
Moreover, the decision does not deal with the defendant's
employees, but with truck drivers employed by third parties. We
believe however that the decision will set a precedent that will be
applied to any persons having access to the workplace.
It is worth noting that the decision does not deal solely with
the CHRA, but with the Quebec Charter as well, which makes it
relevant for employers under either federal or provincial
jurisdiction. It can thus be anticipated that the obligation for
persons of the Sikh religion to wear a hardhat in the workplace
where head injuries are a risk will be transposed to variety of
situations, particularly in the construction industry.
We will continue to monitor the impacts of this decision for
you, and what the result will be if it is appealed.
1 Singh v. Montreal Gateway Terminals
Partnership, 2016 QCCS 4521
2 Bhinder v. CN,  2 SCR
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