TGC lawyer Steven Barker assesses an important recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada


On June 15, 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp., 2017 SCC 30. The Court, with majority reasons written by Chief Justice McLachlin, upheld a decision of the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal that found an employee had been terminated for breaching a company drug and alcohol policy and not because of his cocaine addiction.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and the Alberta Court of Appeal had also previously upheld the Tribunal’s decision.

The employee in question drove a loader in a mine operated by the Elk Valley Coal Corporation. To ensure the safety of all its employees, Elk Valley implemented a comprehensive drug and alcohol policy. Employees were expected to disclose any drug or alcohol addiction or dependence pursuant to the policy; the clear purpose of which was to afford Elk Valley the opportunity to assist its employees with treatment before a serious safety-related event arose at work.

The employee used cocaine on his days off of work. Following a workplace accident involving the employee’s loader, he acknowledged that he thought he was addicted to cocaine. He had never disclosed this addiction to Elk Valley. Nine days after the accident the employee was terminated for failing to disclose his addiction pursuant to Elk Valley’s drug policy.

The circumstances surrounding the employee’s addiction, the nature of Elk Valley’s drug policy, and the wording of Elk Valley’s letter of termination to the employee all contributed to a finding that the employee had not been discriminated against on the basis of his cocaine addiction.

This decision helps demonstrate how employers can craft and enforce drug and alcohol policies that address the twin goals of assisting employees with their addiction(s) while also ensuring a safe workplace. Clear drafting of, and adherence to, drug and alcohol policies can and should protect employers and employees alike.

TGC lawyers have experience advising both employers and employees who are dealing with company policies including drug and alcohol policies.  If you are an employer or employee who has questions about the creation or enforcement of such a policy you can contact us here.