In this case the Alberta Court of Appeal considered the scope of the term “employee” for the purposes of Human Rights and Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, RSA 2000, c. H-14 (now the Alberta Human Rights Act, RSA 2000 c. A-25.5).

The relevant facts are as follows:  

  • The employee was employed by a subcontractor, Lockerby and Hole, who had performed work under contracts on a Syncrude site. It was Syncrude’s policy that contractors could not perform work on the worksite unless those workers had passed a drug test. The complainant, Mr. Luca, was denied access to the Syncrude worksite on those grounds.  
  • Mr. Luca subsequently brought a complaint to the Human Rights Commission of Alberta. Luca complained that he was a drug addict, and had been the subject of discrimination by Syncrude and Lockerbie and Hole.  
  • The Human Rights Commission of Alberta dismissed Mr. Luca’s complaint. Luca was not a drug addict, but merely a recreational drug user. Luca was not entitled to avail himself of the productions of human rights legislation.  

In their decision, the Commission held that both Syncrude and Lockerbie and Hole were to be viewed as “employers” for the purposes of the Human Rights and Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act. Syncrude and Lockerby and Hole appealed that finding on the grounds that they were not properly viewed as “employers” in that context.  

Following the finding of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, the matter proceeded before the Court of Queen’s Bench and subsequently the Court of Appeal in this decision. The Court of Queen’s Bench agreed that the common law definition of “employer” should be viewed more broadly in a Human Rights context. However, the Court refused to expand the term “employer” to cover the relationship between an owner of an industrial site and the employees of an arms length contractor performing work on that site.  

The appeal of the decision in favour of Lockerby and Hole asserted that the Justice had erred by permitting the subcontractor standing at the Court of Queen’s Bench. The Human Rights Commission argued that the decision did not affect Lockerbie and Hole, and the company had not applied for intervener status.  

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the Commission. The Court found that the company had standing by way of the original complaint, which had named both it and Syncrude as defendants. In addition, had the company applied for intervener status, that status would have been granted. Finally, the participation of Lockerbie and Hole had no effect on the outcome of the appeal.  

The Court of Appeal decision considers section 7.1 of the Human Rights and Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, which deals with discrimination of an employee. That section states that “no employer shall…discriminate against any person with regard to employment or any term or condition of employment…” As the legislation did not contain a definition of “employer”, the central question was whether Syncrude or Lockerbie and Hole were properly viewed as an employer for the purposes of the legislation.  

Where legislation does not define a term, the Court is free to apply to a common law interpretation of that term. The Court of Appeal states: “Where the legislature uses, without definition, a word that has a long standing common law meaning, the starting point in the analysis is that the intended meaning in the statute has at its core the common law definition.”  

The Court held that the interpretation adopted by the Human Rights Panel improperly expanded concept of employment beyond what had previously been recognized by Courts in Alberta. As this vast expansion of the definition of “employer” was unjustified by the Panel, the Court of Appeal refused to grant the appeal and adopted the decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

This decision is very important for companies operating within contractual relationships with contractors and subcontractors. The decision provides some protection in the human rights context, confirming that companies who have hired contractors are not subject to the same duties and obligations that apply to an “employer” under Human Rights Legislation.