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Human Rights in Unionized Workplaces: Do Arbitrators Have Exclusive Jurisdiction?
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In a decision released last Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the exclusive jurisdiction of labour arbitrators to consider all matters falling under a Collective Agreement, including human rights claims. In Northern Regional Health Authority v Horrocks, 2021 SCC 42, Linda Horrocks made a complaint against her employer, the Northern Regional Health Authority (“NRHA”), alleging that they discriminated against her on the basis of disability and failed to properly accommodate that disability. 

In 2011 Horrocks was suspended for attending work while under the influence of alcohol, and she subsequently disclosed to her employer that she had an alcohol addiction. Her employer offered her an agreement under which she was required to abstain from alcohol and receive treatment for her addiction. Horrocks refused to sign the agreement, and NRHA terminated her employment. Horrocks’ union filed a grievance based on the termination, and Horrocks was reinstated on terms similar to those in the agreement. Shortly after, Horrocks breached those terms, and NHRA terminated her employment once again. 

Horrocks filed a complaint against her employer with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”). NHRA argued that the Commission did not have jurisdiction to deal with the complaint, as labour arbitrators have exclusive jurisdiction to hear matters arising under collective agreements as per the ruling in Weber v Ontario Hydro. The Commission disagreed, finding that the essential character of Horrocks’ claim did not arise from the Collective Agreement but was instead a human rights violation. The dispute ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The Supreme Court of Canada found that the Commission did not have jurisdiction over Horrocks’ complaint. The Court affirmed that while labour arbitrators do not have absolute jurisdiction in employer-union disputes, they do have exclusive jurisdiction over matters arising expressly or inferentially from collective agreements. Additionally, the Court held that while it is possible for other statutory bodies to “carve into that sphere of exclusivity”, there must be a clear legislative intent to provide the statutory body with the concurrent jurisdiction to do so. 

The Court outlined a two-step test for resolving jurisdictional contest between labour arbitrators and competing statutory tribunals:

  1. Examine the relevant legislation to determine whether it grants the arbitrator exclusive jurisdiction and, if so, over what matters. Where there is a mandatory dispute resolution clause, the exclusive jurisdiction of the arbitrator is assumed but can be rebutted where there is clear legislative intent to the contrary. 
  2. Determine whether the dispute falls within the scope of the arbitrator’s exclusive jurisdiction, looking to the statutory language, the collective agreement, and the factual circumstances of the dispute.

Where it is determined that two tribunals have concurrent jurisdiction, the decision-maker must decide whether to exercise its jurisdiction in that case. The Court did not provide any factors that should guide such a decision. 

In this case, the specific language of Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act (the “Act”) and Human Rights Code (the “Code”) meant there was no concurrent jurisdiction between the labour arbitrator and the Commission. Therefore, the arbitrator had exclusive jurisdiction over Horrocks’ human rights complaint. The Act contains a mandatory dispute resolution clause, providing that every collective agreement in the province shall have a provision for final settlement of all differences between the parties. The Court considered this provision and held that it disclosed a legislative intent to grant exclusive jurisdiction to labour arbitrators over all disputes arising from the Collective Agreement. The Code provisions at issue did not provide any express ousting of the arbitrator’s exclusive jurisdiction but rather granted the Commission broad jurisdiction over Code violations only. 

The Court concluded that the essential character of Horrocks’ claim arose from the interpretation, application or alleged violation of the Collective Agreement, in that she was arguing that the NHRA had improperly exercised its management rights. Therefore, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the Commission’s decision should be set aside, and a labour arbitrator should instead decide the matter. 


The Supreme Court of Canada has now provided a specific test for deciding whether labour arbitrators have jurisdiction over workplace claims brought to other statutory tribunals, such as human rights tribunals. For unionized employers in Manitoba, this means that arbitrators have exclusive jurisdiction over human rights claims arising within the employment relationship. The legislative scheme in Alberta is different from that in Manitoba, and it remains to be seen how the Horrocks test will be applied by the Alberta Human Rights Commission and labour arbitrators in Alberta.

Field Law’s Labour group is well versed in this recent decision and is ready to provide specific assistance and advice. If you have any questions, contact Daisy Feehan or any member of Field Law’s Labour + Employment Group.