Labour Arbitrators, not Human Rights Tribunals, have exclusive jurisdiction over alleged human rights disputes arising from Collective Agreements

October 28, 2021

On October 22, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada released the decision of Northern Regional Health Authority v Horrocks, 2021 SCC 42 in which it explained that human rights tribunals are without jurisdiction to consider human rights disputes arising from the interpretation, application or alleged violation of a collective agreement. Such issues fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of labour arbitrators.


The Employee worked for the Northern Regional Health Authority (the “Employer”) in Manitoba. The Employee was a member of a union. Thus, the terms and conditions of her employment were governed by the collective agreement between the Employer and her union.

In 2011, the Employee was suspended from work for having attended work under the influence of alcohol. She disclosed to her employer that she had an alcohol dependency, which is a recognized disability that triggers the duty to accommodate. Following this disclosure, the Employer provided the Employee with a “Last Chance Agreement” which stipulated that the Employee was to abstain from alcohol and undergo treatment for her alcohol dependency. The Employee refused to enter into the Last Chance Agreement. Consequently, her employment was terminated.

The Union filed a grievance in relation to the Employee’s termination. The grievance was settled by an agreement that the Employer reinstate the Employee, subject to certain conditions, which were substantially similar as to those set out in the Last Chance Agreement the Employee had refused to sign.

Shortly thereafter, the Employee was fired for having consumed alcohol, contrary to the terms of the settlement agreement. The Union refused to file a grievance in relation to this second termination. The Employee filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) alleging that the termination was discriminatory. The Commission appointed an adjudicator under the Manitoba Human Rights Code. The Employer contested the adjudicator’s jurisdiction, arguing that a labour arbitrator had exclusive jurisdiction to determine issues arising from the collective agreement, including human rights complaints. The adjudicator disagreed with the Employer and held that she had jurisdiction over the complaint. The adjudicator further found that the Employer had discriminated against the Employee and ordered that the Employee be reinstated to her position.

The Employer sought judicial review of the adjudicator’s decision regarding jurisdiction. The matter proceeded all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The SCC Decision

The Supreme Court of Canada explained that it is well established that labour arbitrators apply human rights legislation to disputes arising from collective agreements. In determining whether a labour arbitrator has exclusive jurisdiction over human rights disputes arising from a collective agreement, it is necessary to examine the relevant legislation. The labour relations legislation expressly provides that each collective agreement contain an arbitration clause for dealing with a final method of resolving differences concerning the interpretation, application or alleged violation of a collective agreement. This grants a labour arbitrator exclusive jurisdiction over such matters.

However, a labour arbitrator will not have exclusive jurisdiction over such matters when legislation includes clear language that provides another tribunal with jurisdiction to consider the matter. For example, the Canada Labour Code specifically empowers the administrative decision-makers to consider a complaint even if the complaint is capable of being dealt with through the grievance process. In other words, the fact that the matter can be dealt via a grievance does not preclude the decision-maker from considering the complaint.

The Supreme Court of Canada included a caveat in its decision. It explained that not all workplace disputes fall within the scope of the jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator. For example, in a claim for damages relating to a pre-employment contract, the dispute does not fall within the jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator as the dispute arises from the pre-employment contract, not from the collective agreement.

Another example of when a labour arbitrator will not have jurisdiction over a workplace dispute is when the issue concerns the negotiation of a discriminatory term in a collective agreement. This was precisely what occurred in Québec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v Québec (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 39. In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the dispute arose from the negotiation of the collective agreement, not its operation, and as such, it did not fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator.

Key Take Aways

This decision offers clarity over which administrative decision-maker has jurisdiction over human rights disputes arising from a collective agreement. Prior to this decision, labour arbitrators and human rights tribunals were thought to have concurrent jurisdiction over such matters. This decision clarifies that human rights disputes arising from the interpretation, application or alleged violation of a collective agreement must be dealt with under the grievance procedure and an employee is precluded from filing a human rights complaint in relation to such matters unless the legislation specifically provides for concurrent jurisdiction.

This article was written with the assistance of Matthew LeBlanc, an articling clerk working at Cox & Palmer.

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