On October 22, 2021, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the Horrocks case1 regarding the respective jurisdictions of labour arbitrators and human rights tribunals. Although the original decision was handed down in Manitoba, the Horrocks ruling is of some interest to Quebec employers.

Facts

Linda Horrocks, an employee of the Northern Regional Health Authority, was suspended for coming to work while under the influence of alcohol. After disclosing her alcohol addiction to her employer, she was asked to enter into an agreement that required her to abstain from alcohol and engage in addiction treatment (commonly referred to as a “last chance agreement”). Ms. Horrocks refused to enter into such an agreement and her employment was terminated. Her union filed a grievance, which was settled by an agreement reinstating her employment on the same terms as the last chance agreement. However, shortly after her reinstatement, Ms. Horrocks was terminated again for an alleged breach of those terms.

Ms. Horrocks then filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. The employer challenged the jurisdiction of the Commission’s adjudicator, arguing that the labour arbitrator had exclusive jurisdiction.

The labour arbitrator or the Human Rights Commission?

The Court began its analysis by noting that it is “settled law that the scope of a labour arbitrator’s jurisdiction precludes curial recourse in disputes that arise from a collective agreement,” even when the subject matter of the dispute might give rise to other remedies.2 The circumstances in Horrocks were such that the Court had to consider whether the employee’s case fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the labour arbitrator,3 thereby precluding any possibility of recourse to the Commission.

Building on its previous jurisprudence in Weber and Morin, the Court developed a two-step analysis to resolve the jurisdictional dispute between the labour arbitrator and the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. First, it is necessary to examine the relevant legislation “to determine whether it grants the arbitrator exclusive jurisdiction and, if so, over what matters.”4 If it is determined that the legislation grants exclusive jurisdiction to the arbitrator, the second step is to determine whether the dispute falls within the scope of that jurisdiction. The Court noted that this analysis is a question of fact, not of law.5

In Ms. Horrocks’ case, the Court concluded that the essential character of the dispute (her termination) was one of interpretation, application, or alleged violation of the collective agreement and that the arbitrator’s jurisdiction in this regard was therefore exclusive.

The situation in Quebec

In Quebec, the Labour Code states that any disagreement relating to the interpretation or application of a collective agreement must be submitted to an arbitrator. This clearly confers exclusive jurisdiction. The second step of the Horrocks analysis, determining the essential character of the dispute, will depend on the facts of each case.

What does this mean for Quebec employers?

Complaints to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ) occasionally arise in unionized environments. Although it may be tempting to answer the questions of the CDPDJ investigator yourself, since the case has not yet gone to court, it is more important than ever to have the complaint reviewed by a lawyer to determine whether the Commission really has jurisdiction over the case.