Freedom of religion and the duty to accommodate within the workplace context is a highly important issue in Québec given the discrimination provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Employers and employees must work together to attempt to reconcile the right to freedom of religion of employees with the legal obligations imposed on employers under occupational health and safety laws. Quebec courts have been frequently called to rule on this particular subject over the years.
Most recently, in the case of Singh et al. v. Montréal Gateways Terminals et al., the Superior Court of Québec was called to rule on the issue as to whether individuals of the Sikh religion could be exempted from a work policy implemented by the Montréal Gateways Terminals (“MGT”), Empire Stevedoring Co. Ltd. and Termont Terminals Inc. (collectively the “Defendant Terminals”). This policy required all workers to wear a hardhat when circulating outside on the premises of the terminals. The Plaintiffs, truck drivers whose work included transporting containers, claimed that their religious belief prohibited them from wearing such hardhats. Accordingly, they maintained that this policy was discriminatory and violated their right to freedom of religion. Upon adopting the policy, MGT tried to accommodate the Plaintiffs by modifying its container loading procedures which enabled them to stay in their vehicles and, hence, avoid wearing hardhats. However, these measures were rejected by the Plaintiffs as they claimed that they involved significant disadvantages.
This issue was decided upon on September 21st 2016 by Mr. Justice Prévost, J.C.S., who ruled that although MGT’s policy was prima facie discriminatory and violated the right to freedom of religion as regards to the Plaintiffs, it was nevertheless justified given the imperative objectives of such policy.
In reaching his decision, Mr. Justice Prévost, J.C.S., began his analysis by examining the principles with respect to discrimination enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. To that effect, this decision is of significant importance as it is a rare case of transposition of the protections granted under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to a federally-regulated workplace. He established that the policy was in fact discriminatory since the Plaintiffs could not meet the requirement of wearing a hardhat without violating their religious beliefs and, thus, could not work at the terminals operated by MGT. He also confirmed that the policy violated the Plaintiffs’ right to freedom of religion as their belief was sincerely held and the challenged policy interfered with the Plaintiffs’ ability to act in accordance with their beliefs in a manner that was more than trivial or insubstantial.
Nonetheless, Mr. Justice Prévost, J.C.S., held that the policy implemented by the Defendant Terminals was justified as it was adopted in order to ensure the safety of workers circulating or working in the terminals operated by the Defendant Terminals. There was in fact a substantial risk of head injuries for truck drivers when they were required to circulate outside their vehicle on the premises of the terminals. In rendering his decision, Mr. Justice Prévost, J.C.S., also underlined the importance of health and safety at work within the Québec society.
Empire Stevedoring Co. Ltd., Termont Terminals Inc. and the Montreal Port Authority were represented by Vikki-Ann Flansberry from Dentons Montreal.
Singh et al. v. Montréal Gateways Terminals et al. 2016 QCCS 4521
Click on the link to have access to the decision (available in French only)