Labour arbitrators have exclusive jurisdiction to hear human rights complaints from unionized workplaces

By Cleyton Rückl

The Supreme Court of Canada recently issued its decision in Northern Regional Health Authority v. Horrocks, 2021 SCC 42, ruling that disputes involving human rights complaints from unionized workers fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of labour arbitrators. 

This dispute concerns the employer’s response to Ms. Horrocks’ attendance at work under the influence of alcohol – requiring that she sign an abstinence agreement, and terminating her employment for breaching the agreement. Ms. Horrocks filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, and the issue was whether an adjudicator has jurisdiction to hear complaints from unionized workplaces. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Brown explained that where the legislation includes a mandatory dispute resolution clause, an arbitrator empowered under that clause has jurisdiction to decide all disputes arising from the collective agreement, subject to clearly expressed legislative intent to the contrary.

The Labour Relations Act requires every collective agreement to include a provision for final settlement of all disputes about the meaning, application, or violation of the agreement – the mandatory arbitration clause. And while The Human Rights Code gives broad jurisdiction to the Commission to receive, investigate and refer complaints to adjudication, there are no provisions that expressly displace the exclusive jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator established by the mandatory arbitration clause. As a result, only labour arbitrators have jurisdiction to hear human rights complaints from unionized workplaces.