Supreme Court: Human rights legislation applies to all government employees
Parliamentary privilege does not shield alleged discriminatory actions from review
In Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the Canadian Human Rights Act applies to all federal government employees, including those working for Parliament.
Satnam Vaid had worked as a chauffeur to successive Speakers of the House of Commons for over ten years when he was terminated for allegedly refusing to accept new job responsibilities. He filed a grievance pursuant to the procedures under the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act (“PESRA”). An adjudicator allowed the grievance and ordered that he be reinstated to his position as chauffeur.
However, when he returned to work, Vaid was informed that the chauffeur position had been designated “bilingual imperative”. Vaid went for language training but when he tried to return to work, he was told that, because of a reorganization, his position was about to be made surplus.
Vaid filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging he had been constructively dismissed for reasons that amounted to workplace discrimination and harassment on the basis race, colour, and national or ethnic origin under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The Commission referred the complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
The Speaker and the House of Commons challenged the jurisdiction of the Tribunal to hear the complaints. They argued that the manner in which the House manages its employees was an internal matter protected by parliamentary privilege and that no court or tribunal could question or review those decisions. The Commission maintained that Parliament could not have intended to deny its employees the benefit of labour and human rights protections that Parliament itself imposed on every other federal employer.
The Tribunal agreed with the Commission, holding that the complaints could proceed. The Speaker and the House of Commons sought judicial review, but the Federal Court Trial Division and the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the Tribunal’s decision. The Speaker and the House appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Supreme Court’s decision
On May 20, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada allowed the appeal.
Importantly, the Court rejected the government’s argument that parliamentary privilege shielded the actions of the Speaker and House of Commons from review. It held that the Canadian Human Rights Act applies to all employees of the federal government, including those working for Parliament.
However, the Court granted the appeal on the basis of an administrative law argument concerning competing statutory schemes. It accepted the government’s argument that Vaid fell within a group of employees for whom Parliament had enacted a special labour relations scheme under PESRA and, as result, he was required to pursue his complaints under that statute, rather than the Canadian Human Rights Act. The scheme in PESRA, the Court held, was the exclusive method of dispute resolution for employees such as Vaid.
The Court’s decision is significant in that it confirms that the Canadian Human Rights Act applies to employees of Parliament. The decision is also significant on the question of competing statutory schemes. While the Court indicated that Vaid’s complaint should have been pursued through the mechanism of PESRA, it left open the possibility that, in certain circumstances, the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Commission may be more appropriate.
Peter Engelmann represented two unions – the Canadian Association of Professional Employees and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union – that intervened in the case in support of Vaid.