Canada Post Corp. v. Canadian Union of Postal Workers, 2019 SCC 67

Administrative law — Judicial review — Labour relations

On appeal from a judgment of the Federal Court of Appeal (2017 FCA 153), setting aside a decision of Gleeson J., 2016 FC 252.

Following a complaint and subsequent investigation, a health and safety officer found Canada Post Corporation, as a federally‑regulated employer, in contravention of certain health and safety obligations set out in Part II of the Canada Labour Code (“Code ”). The complaint was filed by a representative of the letter carriers’ union, who claimed that the work place safety inspections performed by the joint health and safety committee should include letter carrier routes and points of call. The health and safety officer issued a direction finding that the employer failed to comply with s. 125(1) (z.12) of the Code, which states that “every employer shall, in respect of every work place controlled by the employer and, in respect of every work activity carried out by an employer in a work place that is not controlled by the employer, to the extent that the employer controls the activity, ensure that the work place committee or the health and safety representative inspects each month all or part of the work place, so that every part of the work place is inspected at least one each year”. The employer appealed the health and safety officer’s direction to the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal Canada. The appeals officer rescinded the contravention relating to work place inspections, determining that the work place inspection obligation applied only to the parts of the work place over which the employer had control; this did not include letter carrier routes and points of call. The Federal Court dismissed the union’s application for judicial review. The Federal Court of Appeal allowed the union’s appeal and reinstated the health and safety officer’s direction that the employer failed to comply with s. 125(1) (z.12) of the Code.

Held(Abella and Martin JJ. dissenting): The appeal should be allowed and the appeals officer’s order restored.

Per Wagner C.J. and Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Gascon, Côté, Brown and Rowe JJ.:

Applying the framework set out in Vavilov for determining the applicable standard of review and conducting reasonableness review, the appeals officer’s decision concluding that the obligation to inspect the work place in s. 125(1) (z.12) of the Code is one that can only apply to an employer who has control over the physical work place was reasonable. The appeals officer’s analysis followed a rational and logical line of reasoning and his decision was defensible in light of the relevant legal and factual constraints. He employed well‑established principles of statutory interpretation, engaged with the submissions and evidence before him, and drew on his knowledge of the field when considering the practical implications of his interpretation. The interpretation he arrived at is harmonious with the text, context and purpose of the provision and aligns with past decisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal Canada.

The appeals officer’s decision is reviewable on a standard of reasonableness. None of the situations set out in Vavilov for departing from the presumption of reasonableness review apply here: the legislature has not statutorily prescribed a standard of review or provided for an appeal from the administrative decision to a court and the question on review does not fall into one of the categories of questions that the rule of law requires be reviewed on a standard of correctness.

As provided for in Vavilov, when conducting reasonableness review, a reviewing court must begin its inquiry into the reasonableness of a decision by examining the reasons provided with respectful attention, seeking to understand the reasoning process followed by the decision maker to arrive at a conclusion. What is required of statutory delegates to justify their decision will depend on the context in which the decision is made. A reasonable decision is one that is based on an internally coherent and rational chain of analysis and that is justified in relation to the facts and law that constrain the decision maker.

In the instant case, the appeals officer’s reasons do not in any way display a fatal flaw in rationality or logic. His decision was not rendered unreasonable by, on the one hand, recognizing that the employer through its internal policies seeks to identify and resolve hazards for letter carriers, while also concluding that it does not have the capacity to ensure all areas of the work place outside the employer’s physical building are inspected annually. Far from being internally incoherent, the appeals officer’s reasoning demonstrates his in‑depth understanding of the ways in which the employer fulfils the purposes of the Code, bearing in mind the practical limitations of the work place.

When reviewing a question of statutory interpretation, reviewing courts should not conduct a de novo interpretation, nor attempt to determine a range of reasonable interpretations against which to compare the interpretation of decision makers. A “reasons first” approach rather requires reviewing courts to start with how decision makers arrived at their interpretation, and determine whether it was defensible in light of the interpretative constraints imposed by law. Where the meaning of a statutory provision is in dispute, administrative decision makers must demonstrate in their reasons that they were alive to the essential elements of statutory interpretation. In addition to being harmonious with the text, context and purpose of the provision, a reasonable interpretation should conform to any interpretative constraints in the governing statutory scheme, as well as interpretative rules arising from other sources of law. The evidentiary record and the general factual matrix act as constraints on the reasonableness of a decision, and must be taken into account. The principles of justification and transparency require that administrative decision makers’ reasons meaningfully account for the central issues and concerns raised by the parties. However, administrative decisions makers are not required, on their own account, to consider every aspect of the statutory context that might bear on their decisions. While reviewing courts should ensure the decision under review is justified in relation to the relevant facts, deference to decision makers includes deferring to their findings and assessment of the evidence. Reviewing courts must pay respectful attention to decision makers’ demonstrated expertise when considering whether an outcome reflects a reasonable approach given the consequences and the operational impact of a decision.

In this case, the appeals officer interpreted s. 125(1) (z.12) using well‑established principles of statutory interpretation, with due regard to the submissions before him. His reasons amply demonstrate that he considered the text, context and purpose of the provision, and his focus on the practical implications of his interpretation enriched and elevated the interpretative exercise. He demonstrated a sustained effort to discern legislative intent throughout his analysis, and did not simply reverse‑engineer a desired outcome. His broad interpretation of what constitutes a work place conformed to the definition in the Code and to prior decisions on this point, and accounted for all the areas in which an employee may be engaged in work. His interpretation of the scope of the obligations arising from s. 125(1) was not contrary to the plain text of the statute, as the words “and” and “ainsi que” in the opening phrase of the English and French versions of s. 125(1) do not preclude the conclusion that the provision indicates that certain obligations apply only where an employer has control over the work place. The appeals officer’s reasons also demonstrate that he turned his mind to the context of s. 125(1) (z.12). He considered the practical implications of the interpretation in light of the purpose of s. 125(1) (z.12), an imputed purpose accepted by the parties and consistent with the broad, purposive interpretation afforded to remedial legislation. His interpretation did not frustrate the statutory purpose set out in the Code. There is no indication that he failed to consider the evidence presented at the hearing, or that he based his decision on a misapprehension of the evidence, thereby rendering his decision unreasonable.

Per Abella and Martin JJ. (dissenting):

The appeal should be dismissed. The appeals officer’s conclusion that the safety inspection duty in s. 125(1) (z.12) of the Code requires the employer to inspect only those workplaces within its physical control was unreasonable and inconsistent with the purpose and text of the safety inspection provision. The employer contravened its statutory duty in s. 125(1) (z.12) by preventing the health and safety committee from inspecting mail routes for safety hazards.

The introductory language of s. 125 is an unambiguous dual legislative direction to employers that their safety obligations apply both to workplaces they control and, if they do not control the actual workplace, to every work activity that they do control to the extent of that control. Nothing in the text of s. 125(1) limits an employer’s inspection duty to workplaces under its physical control.

Section 125(1) (z.12) is part of an extensive web of employer responsibilities which flow from a general obligation placed on employers to ensure workplace safety, and are designed to prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, linked with or occurring in the course of employment. All of the 45 duties placed on employers are introduced by language stipulating that they apply in all workplaces controlled by employers and to all employer‑controlled work activities carried out by employees. Section 125(1) aims to protect workers from safety hazards a purpose that is undermined if the safety inspection duty is confined to workplaces under an employer’s physical control. By drafting s. 125(1) to cover workplaces within and outside an employer’s physical control, Parliament sought to protect the thousands of employees working outside an employer‑owned location, affording the same quality of safety protection to all employees wherever they work.

Safety inspections were a central methodology by which Parliament intended to broaden preventive health and safety protections for workers. They exist to proactively identify hazards before workers are exposed to them, and ensure that they will either be fixed or avoided. It makes little sense that Parliament, having expressly chosen under s. 125(1) to extend safety protections to activities in workplaces outside an employer’s control, would have intended that a core part of those protections — the safety inspection duty — be exempt from that extension. The preventive purpose of the inspection obligation further reinforces that it was not meant to apply only to workplaces under an employer’s physical control.

A narrowing of the inspection duty is inconsistent with the expansive definitions of “workplace” found in many provincial health and safety statutes. The uniting feature of all these statutes is a functional, purposive definition of a workplace that centers on where the worker performs his or her employment, not on whether the employer controls the physical premises. The language of s. 125(1) (z.12) should not be interpreted in isolation to shrink an employer’s duty to protect workers from safety hazards; it should be read as part of s. 125(1) , which expressly imposes the duty in connection with any work activity to the extent that the employer controls the activity. Therefore, safety inspections should be done in a way that protects employee safety as much as possible in the circumstances, not in a way that deprives whole categories of workers — those who work outside a physical building — from protection.

The fact that the inspections may be difficult to carry out does not support eliminating the duty completely. Parliament did not intend that a provision binding all federally‑regulated employers be interpreted based on whether it is easy or difficult for any particular employer to implement. The language of s. 125(1) eschews an all‑or‑nothing view of the safety obligations, in favour of a context‑specific approach capable of accommodating the diverse group of federally‑regulated employers. The flexibility anticipated by s. 125(1) is underscored by Parliament’s delegation of inspection responsibilities to joint health and safety committees. By delegating the safety inspection obligation to joint workplace committees, Parliament clearly contemplated a flexible inspection process sensitive to workplace‑specific concerns and limitations. Just because inspections may be difficult does not mean that they do not have to be done at all, and just because hazards cannot be fixed entirely does not mean that nothing can be done to address them. This interpretation is the only one that is true to the preventive purpose of s. 125(1) in general and the safety inspection provision in particular.

In the instant case, the appeals officer’s reasoning process was deeply flawed. He acknowledged that safety inspections are meant to protect employees from workplace hazards, but failed to give this purpose, and the plain language of s. 125(1) , any meaningful effect, let alone a generous interpretation. His interpretation ignores the second part of s. 125(1) , which simultaneously imposes the inspection duty on employers for work activities in workplaces they do not control. In so restricting the scope of s. 125(1) (z.12), the appeals officer redrafted the provision. The employer’s control of the work activity of letter‑carriers is stringent, bringing its work arrangements with its letter‑carriers squarely within the language of s. 125(1) . By restricting inspections to locations where the employer exercises property rights, the appeals officer’s decision risks leaving workplace health and safety committees unable to proactively identify and address the hazards that may arise in the areas where letter‑carriers work. By reading out the words and purposes of the safety inspection duty, the appeals officer came to an unreasonable conclusion that subverted not only the preventive purpose of the employer safety duties in s. 125(1), but of the specific goal in s. 125(1) (z.12) to ensure that inspections are carried out to make workplace as safe as possible.

Citation:                                      Canada Post Corp. v. Canadian Union of                                                    Postal Workers, 2019 SCC 67

SCC File No.:                             37787

Reasons for Judgment:              Rowe J. (Wagner C.J. and Moldaver, Karakatsanis,                                                    Gascon, Côté and Brown JJ. concurring)

Dissenting Reasons:                  Abella J. (Martin J. concurring)