Parliament not exempt from human rights

Supreme Court says human rights legislation applies to staff on Parliament Hill

Employees on Parliament Hill enjoy the same human rights protection as employees across the country, the Supreme Court of Canada said in a recent decision.

The decision involved Satnam Vaid, who worked as a chauffeur to successive Speakers of the House of Commons between 1984 and 1994. He was terminated on Jan. 11, 1995, because he refused to assume new duties under a changed job description and refused alternative employment.

He grieved the termination, and was awarded his job back. But the chauffeur position was ultimately declared surplus. Vaid filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging former Speaker of the House Gilbert Parent, and the House of Commons, had discriminated against him on the basis of race.

In response, the House of Commons challenged the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to inquire into its conduct, claiming parliamentary privilege. In 2001 the tribunal ruled in favour of Vaid, stating it had jurisdiction to hear the claim.

The House of Commons appealed that decision. The Federal Court rejected the appeal in 2002. Another appeal was rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal in 2003. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which handed down its ruling on May 20.

Justice William Bennie of the Supreme Court rejected the idea that the hiring and firing of House employees are “internal affairs” which may not be questioned or reviewed by any tribunal or court. In short, the House was arguing that parliamentary privilege gave it the power and immunity to conduct employee relations free from interference from any body outside of parliament itself.

For its part, the Canadian Human Rights Commission said it was unthinkable that parliament would seek to deny its employees the benefit of labour and human rights protections which parliament itself has imposed on every other federal employer.

The House also said the Canadian Human Rights Act does not expressly state that it applies to the House of Commons and its members, citing a British ruling from 1870.

But the Supreme Court said that 135-year-old decision was out of step with modern principles of how legislation is interpreted in Canada. Citing Construction of Statutes by Elmer A. Driedger the court said:

“Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the act, the object of the act and the intention of parliament.”

Using that logic, Justice Bennie said there is no indication the human rights legislation was not intended to extend to employees of parliament.

“There is no reason to think that parliament ‘intended’ to impose human rights obligations on every federal employer except itself,” said Justice Bennie.

He said the Canadian Human Rights Act is a quasi-constitutional document and any exemption from its provisions must be clearly stated. Therefore, the court ruled the act does apply to employees on Parliament Hill.

But it also said the complaint should have been dealt with by way of a grievance under the Parliamentary Employment and Staff Relations Act (PESRA) and not taken to the human rights commission. It said PESRA explicitly provides an appropriate avenue for Vaid’s complaint to be dealt with.

“In this case, we are not dealing with an allegation of systemic discrimination,” said Justice Bennie. “We are dealing with a single employee who says he was wrongfully dismissed against a background of alleged discrimination and harassment. A different dispute may involve different considerations that may lead to a complaint properly falling under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. But that is not this case.”

For more information see:

Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid, 2005 SCC 30 (S.C.C.)

What the Speaker’s chauffeur alleged

Satnam Vaid related a number of events over the course of his employment as a chauffeur for Speaker Gilbert Parent that he said were motivated by racism:

•Parent suggested Vaid was overqualified for the position.

•Parent questioned his wife regarding her employment and made her feel as though he was trying to assess whether she could financially support Vaid in the event he lost his job.

•Parent started a conversation with Vaid about the caste system in India and pressed him about which caste he had been born into.

•Parent’s executive assistant said that because of budget cuts, he wanted to place Vaid on a split shift and asked him to take on additional duties, including washing dishes.

•In March 1994 the executive assistant told Vaid, who was wearing a soft cervical collar necessitated because of a whiplash injury, that he could not drive the Speaker while wearing the collar. His driving duties were taken away and assigned to a white driver who spoke only English.

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