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SCC: cocaine addicted employee involved in workplace accident dismissed for breach of policy, not drug use

Jurisdiction: - Alberta - All
Sector: - Mining

In a decision issued today - Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp., 2017 SCC 30 - the Supreme Court of Canada tackled the difficult issue of when and on what basis an employer can dismiss an employee addicted to drugs.  


As set out by the SCC, these are the facts:

[1]   Ian Stewart worked in a mine operated by the Elk Valley Coal Corporation, driving a loader.  The mine operations were dangerous, and maintaining a safe worksite was a matter of great importance to the employer and employees

The employer implemented an Alcohol, Illegal Drugs & Medication Policy, aimed at ensuring safety in the mine ("Policy").  Employees were expected to disclose any dependence or addiction issues before any drug-related incident occurred.  If they did, they would be offered treatment.  However, if they failed to disclose and were involved in an incident and tested positive for drugs, they would be terminated - a policy succinctly dubbed the "no free accident" rule.  The aim of the Policy was to ensure safety by encouraging employees with substance abuse problems to come forward and obtain treatment before their problems compromised safety.  Employees, including Mr. Stewart, attended a training session at which the Policy was reviewed and explained.  Mr. Stewart signed a form acknowledging receipt and understanding of the Policy.

[2]   Mr. Stewart used cocaine on his days off. He did not tell his employer that he was using drugs. One day, near the end of a 12-hour shift, Mr. Stewart's loader was involved in an accident. No one was hurt, but Mr. Stewart tested positive for drugs. Following the positive drug test, in a meeting with his employer, Mr. Stewart said that he thought he was addicted to cocaine. Nine days later, his employer terminated his employment in accordance with the "no free accident" rule

Prior Legal Proceedings

Mr. Stewart filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal (the "Tribunal"), taking the position that Teck had  engaged in a discriminatory act by terminating his employment given his addiction to drugs. Addiction is a recognized disability under Alberta's Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act.

The Tribunal ruled that Mr. Stewart was not terminated because of his addiction, but for breaching the Policy, which required him to disclose his addiction or dependency before an accident occurred to avoid termination.  The Tribunal's decision was affirmed by the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench and by the Alberta Court of Appeal.

Supreme Court of Canada's decision 


As it relates to the standard of review that should be used by the courts in reviewing the Tribunal's decision, the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that, "[t]hese issues were within the purview of the Tribunal, and attract deference. The only question is whether the Tribunal's decision was reasonable." (para. 22).

Applying this "reasonableness" standard to the Triubanls' decision, the SCC ruled that it was not unreasonable for the Tribunal to conclude that Mr. Stewart's addiction was not a factor in his termination on the basis that:

  1. he was fired not because he was addicted, but because he had failed to comply with the terms of the Policy, and for no other reason.
  2. he was not adversely impacted by the Policy because he had the capacity to comply with its terms.

Given this conclusion, the majority of the SCC took the position that it was unnecessary to consider whether Mr. Stewart's addiction / disability had been accommodated to the point of undue hardship by Teck.


The minority of the Supreme Court of Canada agreed that the Tribunal's decision should be upheld but for different reasons. Specifically, it ruled that it was unreasonable for the Tribunal to conclude that there was no prima facie discrimination but that the Tribunal reasonably held that the employer met its obligation to accommodate Mr. Stewart to the point of undue hardship. On this point the minority stated:

[55]  In our view, it was reasonable for the Tribunal to conclude that Mr. Stewart's immediate termination was reasonably necessary, so that the deterrent effect of the Policy was not significantly reduced. Elk Valley's coal mining operation was a "safety-sensitive environment" (Tribunal reasons, at para. 75). In such a workplace, it was crucial to deter employees from using drugs in a manner that could negatively affect their work performance and potentially lead to devastating consequences. Workplace safety is a relevant consideration when assessing whether the employer has accommodated the employee to the point of undue hardship: Central Alberta Dairy Pool v. Alberta (Human Rights Commission), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 489, at pp. 520-21. Subjecting Mr. Stewart to an individual assessment or imposing an unpaid suspension for a limited period as a disciplinary measure instead of imposing the serious and immediate consequence of termination would undermine the Policy's deterrent effect. This, in turn, would compromise the employer's valid objective to prevent employees from using drugs in a way that could give rise to serious harm in its safety-sensitive workplace. Therefore, the Tribunal reasonably concluded that incorporating these aspects of individual accommodation within the  "no free accident" standard would result in undue hardship: see British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles) v. British Columbia (Council of Human Rights), [1999] 3 S.C.R. 868, at para. 42.

[56]  The employee is not entitled to perfect accommodation, but rather to accommodation that is reasonable in the circumstances: Central Okanagan School District No. 23 v. Renaud, [1992] 2 S.C.R. 970, at pp. 994-95. Although Mr. Stewart was immediately terminated, he was offered the opportunity to apply for employment after six months, provided that he completed a rehabilitation program at a recognized facility. The employer agreed to pay 50
percent of the cost of the program on certain conditions being met. There was also evidence that there would have been vacant positions available had Mr. Stewart applied for employment after completing the program.

[57] We are therefore of the view that it was reasonable for the Tribunal to find that Mr. Stewart was not discriminated against by his employer on the ground of his drug dependency. We would dismiss the appeal.


Justice Gascon was the lone dissenting judge and in a lengthy set out reasons he concluded that the Tribunal's decision was not reasonable and that Mr. Stewart's appeal should be allowed.