Supreme Court of Canada decision affirms grievance arbitrator’s exclusive authority


In Northern Regional Health Authority v. Horrocks, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified the jurisdiction of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and labour arbitrators in respect of disputes touching upon both the exercise of employer rights under a collective agreement and employee human rights.

The Facts

In 2011, a unionized employee, Horrocks, was suspended for attending work under the influence of alcohol. In response, Horrocks disclosed that she had an alcohol addiction. Horrocks’ employer asked her to sign an abstinence agreement. Horrocks refused, so the employer terminated her employment.

Horrocks’ union successfully grieved that termination and she was reinstated at work on substantially the same terms as the abstinence agreement. The employer terminated Horrocks for a second time shortly thereafter for allegedly breaching the terms.

Horrocks then took a new route: she filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, alleging that her termination was discriminatory. Ultimately, the Human Rights Adjudicator found that she had jurisdiction to consider Horrocks’ complaint and found that the employer discriminated against Horrocks in respect of her termination.

The employer appealed that decision all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. It argued that the Human Rights Commission had no jurisdiction over the complaint: the essential character of the dispute was within the exclusive jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator in accordance with the terms of the collective agreement.

The Court of Queen’s Bench agreed with the employer, but the Court of Appeal did not. Ultimately, the Supreme Court weighed in and sided with the employer.

The Decision

The Supreme Court was split 6-1. The majority found that Manitoba’s labour laws provide for the final settlement of disputes arising from a collective agreement. In this case, in their collective agreement, the parties chose grievance arbitration as the sole dispute resolution mechanism. As long as the core subject matter of the complaint – that is, its “essential character” - had something to do with the collective agreement, it had to be dealt with by a grievance arbitrator.

The human rights adjudicator found that the “essential character” of the complaint was a violation of Horrocks’ human rights, and not the collective agreement. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding that the human rights component “transcends” the collective agreement and is therefore not under the grievance arbitrator’s exclusive jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court disagreed. The majority found that in its essential character, Horrocks’ complaint was that her employer exercised its management rights under the collective agreement in an illegitimate way. Horrocks could not get around the exclusive jurisdiction of the grievance arbitrator simply by framing her complaint as a human rights violation.

The bottom line: the grievance arbitrator had exclusive jurisdiction over Horrocks’ complaint, and her union had a “monopoly on representation.”

The Outcome

Although it took a long road to get here (note that Horrocks’ complaint started in 2011, and the Supreme Court only settled the jurisdictional issue in 2021), the Supreme Court’s decision provides much-needed clarity to employers, unions and employees in respect of disputes arising out of a collective agreement but also involving human rights issues, and the proper forum to adjudicate those disputes.