Freedom of religion and the duty to accommodate in the workplace is a highly important issue in Quebec, given the discrimination provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Employers and employees must work together to attempt to reconcile the right to freedom of religion of employees with the legal obligations imposed on employers under occupational health and safety laws. Quebec courts have been frequently called to rule on this particular subject over the years.
Most recently, in Singh v Montréal Gateways Terminals,(1) the Quebec Superior Court was called to rule on the issue as to whether individuals of the Sikh religion could be exempted from a work policy implemented by Montréal Gateways Terminals (MGT), Empire Stevedoring Co Ltd and Termont Terminals Inc. This policy required all workers to wear a hardhat when circulating outside on the premises of the terminals. The plaintiffs – truck drivers whose work included transporting containers – claimed that their religious beliefs prohibited them from wearing hardhats. Accordingly, they maintained that this policy was discriminatory and violated their right to freedom of religion. Upon adopting the policy, MGT tried to accommodate the plaintiffs by modifying its container loading procedures which enabled drivers to stay in their vehicles and therefore avoid wearing hardhats. However, these measures were rejected by the plaintiffs, who claimed that they involved significant disadvantages.
On September 21 2016 Justice Prévost ruled that although MGT's policy was prima facie discriminatory and violated the right to freedom of religion as regards to the plaintiffs, it was nevertheless justified given the imperative objectives of such policy.
In reaching his decision, the judge examined the principles with respect to discrimination enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
This decision is significant as it is a rare case of transposition of the protections granted under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to a federally regulated workplace. The judge established that the policy was in fact discriminatory since the plaintiffs could not meet the requirement of wearing a hardhat without violating their religious beliefs and therefore, could not work at the terminals operated by MGT. He also confirmed that the policy violated the plaintiffs' right to freedom of religion, as their belief was sincerely held and the challenged policy interfered with the plaintiffs' ability to act in accordance with their beliefs in a manner that was more than trivial or insubstantial.
Nonetheless, the judge held that the policy implemented by the defendants was justified, as it was adopted in order to ensure the safety of workers circulating or working in the terminals operated by the defendants. There was a substantial risk of head injuries for truck drivers when they were required to circulate outside their vehicles on the premises of the terminals. In rendering his decision, the judge also underlined the importance of health and safety at work within Quebec society.
For further information on this topic please contact Virginie Dandurand at Dentons Canada LLP by telephone (+1 514 878 8800) or email ([email protected]). The Dentons website can be accessed at www.dentons.com.