Courts in Canada have long dealt with human rights issues in the context of workplace policies, including drug and alcohol policies. The competing interests are clear. On one hand, workplaces have an interest in promoting and enhancing safety at work through workplace policies. On the other hand, drug and alcohol addiction has been recognized as a prohibited ground under human rights legislation. In the recent decision of Stewart v Elk Valley Coal Corp., 2017 SCC 30, the Supreme Court of Canada had the opportunity to address the human rights issues of a workplace policy requiring disclosure of drug and alcohol dependence or addiction. The Court ruled that termination for violation of the drug and alcohol policy was not discriminatory as the employee could not demonstrate that it was his addiction, as opposed to a breach of the policy, that led to his termination.

Factual Background

The Employer operated a mine and implemented an Alcohol, Illegal Drugs & Medication Policy (the “Policy”). The Policy included a clause that employees were to disclose any dependency or addiction issues before any drug or alcohol related incident occurred. If they did, they would be offered treatment. If employees failed to disclose and were involved in an incident and tested positive for drugs or alcohol, they would be terminated.

drug abuse

The Employee was involved in a workplace accident involving a front loader. As part of its investigation, the Employer had the Employee submit to drug and alcohol testing. The Employee tested positive for cocaine. Prior to the workplace accident, the Employee had never disclosed his cocaine use to the Employer. After the accident, the Employee alleged that he thought he was addicted to cocaine. The Employee was terminated for having violated the Policy. The Employee filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal, claiming that he had been terminated because of his addiction; an allegation that, if true, would constitute discrimination under the Alberta Human Rights Act, R.S.A. 2000, c. A-25.5.

The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal upheld the termination on the grounds that the Employee was not terminated because of his addiction but rather was terminated for violating the Policy. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the tribunal. The Employee further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

SCC Decision

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Employee was not terminated because of his addiction but rather because of his failure to comply with the Policy. The Court found that he would have been fired regardless of whether he was an addict or a casual user. Further, the Employee had not been adversely impacted by the Policy as he was fully capable of complying with the Policy.

Lessons For Employers

Although this case is a welcome ruling for employers, it should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of terminations relating to drug and/or alcohol use. Rather, this decision drives home the importance of the following considerations for employers:

  • Sound policy drafting: the employer in this case would not have succeeded with a poor drafted policy. Employers should have a well-drafted drug and alcohol policy in place, take steps to ensure employees are made aware of such policies, and have signed off on them.
  • Safety-sensitive work environment: This decision concerned a safety-sensitive workplace and an employee in a safety-sensitive role. These circumstances continue to play a critical role in the analyses of courts in cases involving drugs and alcohol, especially in assessing whether the duty to accommodate an employee alleging his or her termination was based on a protected ground under human rights legislation.
  • Discipline or Termination letter: where an employer decides to proceed with disciplinary actions against an employee, a discipline or termination letter should be clear that the discipline imposed is based on the breach of a workplace policy.