An injured federal employee in Alberta is entitled to the same workers’ compensation as any other person working in Alberta, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has decided  in Martin v. Alberta (Workers’ Compensation Board), released on March 28, 2014.   In the same decision the SCC found that the employer’s warning of possible discipline, where an employee fails to carry out a duty, is not so unusual that it should give rise to a compensable stress claim.

Mr. Martin, a Parks Canada employee based in Alberta, claimed he suffered from chronic onset psychological injury or stress due to his work situation. Mr. Martin had a prolonged dispute regarding whether Parks Canada employees should be armed. He claimed that because of that dispute, Parks Canada denied him training opportunities, assigned him to less challenging tasks and prevented him from “performing the more pleasurable aspects” of his job. Mr. Martin was also asked to respond to a request for disclosure under the Access to Information Act, which was found to have been the predominant reason for the onset of his illness. This request was not disciplinary, or out of the course of his job responsibilities.

There was medical proof of Mr. Martin’s illness, but the issue was whether it was a compensable “accident” under Alberta law.

Federal government employees are subject to the federal Government Employees Compensation Act (GECA). The GECA stipulates that provincial laws and provincialworkers’ compensation boards have jurisdiction to determine federal government employee compensation claims. The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board ruled that Mr. Martin was not eligible for compensation benefits due to his psychological impairment.

The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board only accepts claims for psychiatric or psychological disability when:

  • There is a confirmed psychological or psychiatric diagnosis;
  • The work-related events or stressors are the predominant cause of injury;
  • The work-related events are excessive or unusual in comparison to the normal pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in a similar occupation; and,
  • There is objective confirmation of the events.

By definition, matters such as discipline, interpersonal conflicts, union issues, workload and deadlines, performance management are not considered to be “excessive” or “unusual.”

Based on this policy, Mr. Martin was denied benefits. This decision was appealed all the way to the SCC. Different provinces have different approaches to the issue of job-related psychiatric illnesses, and there are no federal guidelines or policies which address eligibility.

The issue was whether this Alberta policy could limit a federal employee’s entitlements under the GECA, which spoke broadly about employees being compensation for “personal injury by an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.” Martin argued that the broad language in the federal GECA ought not to be restricted by an Alberta policy.

The SCC rejected Mr. Martin’s position and held:

  • The history of the text of the GECA as well as Parliament’s stated intentions clearly demonstrate that Parliament’s purpose in enacting the GECA was to rely on provincial laws and provincial boards to determine federal workers’ compensation claims, except where the GECA clearly conflicts with provincial legislation.
  • Neither the GECA nor the WCA definition of “accident” provides guidance as to when an accident or injury is, in fact, caused by the worker’s employment.
  • The disparity in entitlements between federal workers in different provinces which arises from the scheme of the GECA is not “inconsistent with the principles of federalism.”
  • The Commission’s conclusion was “within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law.”

The SCC did not deal with an important issue that was raised in argument but not raised as a formal challenge under the Charter: “Is it constitutional to impose benefit eligibility restrictions on psychiatric illnesses or disabilities that do not exist for physical injuries? “

While both the SCC and the Alberta Court of Appeal refused to deal with Charter issue on the basis that it was not properly raised, readers interested in this issue should refer to the 2009  British Columbia Court of Appeal decision in Plesner v. BC Hydro, 2009 BCCA 188. That case stands for the proposition that it is unconstitutional to impose a higher standard for entitlement for psychiatric illnesses than for physical injuries. The authors predict that there will continue to be constitutional challenges regarding any attempts to restrict the scope of benefits for psychiatric illnesses.