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SCC Issues Landmark Decision on Workplace Drug Testing


On June 15, 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) issued its decision in Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp. This landmark decision is a welcome result for employers as it reaffirms the right of employers to take proactive risk mitigation and management measures through alcohol and drug policies.

In its decision, the SCC held that employers can terminate employees for breaching a drug and alcohol policy even if the employee has a drug addiction.


The appellant in the case, Ian Stewart (Mr. Stewart), worked in a safety-sensitive position for a mine operated by the Elk Valley Coal Corporation (Elk Valley) in Alberta. Recognizing that mine operations can be dangerous, maintaining a safe work environment was a matter of great importance for Elk Valley. Accordingly, Elk Valley implemented a drug and alcohol testing policy (policy) whereby employees were required to disclose any dependency or addiction issues before any drug-related incident occurred.

Under this policy, if an employee revealed a dependency or addiction issue to Elk Valley, he or she would be offered treatment. However, the policy also provided that employees could be terminated if they:

  • Failed to disclose their dependency or addiction;
  • Were involved in a safety incident; and
  • Tested positive for drug use after the incident.

Prior to the implementation of the policy, Elk Valley held training sessions for employees where the policy was presented and explained. All employees were required to sign acknowledgement forms to indicate they understood the policy. Mr. Stewart attended one of the training sessions and signed the acknowledgment form indicating that he understood and agreed to comply with the terms of the policy.

Approximately six months after the implementation of the policy, Mr. Stewart was involved in a workplace accident. During the subsequent investigation, Mr. Stewart was required to undergo a post-accident drug test where he tested positive for cocaine use. Mr. Stewart was then terminated by Elk Valley for violating the policy.

Mr. Stewart then filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination under Alberta’s Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act (the Act) on the grounds of a physical disability connected with his drug addiction. Mr. Stewart’s side argued that his failure to comply with Elk Valley’s policy was the result of a symptom of his addiction, and, therefore, his termination was contrary to the Act. The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal held that Mr. Stewart was justifiably terminated for breaching Elk Valley’s policy, not because of his addiction. This decision was affirmed by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and by the Alberta Court of Appeal.

Supreme Court of Canada’s Decision

In an 8-1 decision, the SCC gave deference to the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal’s findings and the lower courts’ rulings that Mr. Stewart’s disability was a not a factor in his termination. Instead, the SCC found that Mr. Stewart was dismissed because he failed to adhere with the terms of Elk Valley’s drug and alcohol testing policy. Therefore, Elk Valley did not violate Mr. Stewart’s rights under the Act when he was dismissed.

In particular, the SCC accepted that since Elk Valley’s policy distinguished between disclosing drug use before and after testing positive, Mr. Stewart had the capacity to comply with the policy despite his addiction. Accordingly, Elk Valley terminated Mr. Stewart for breaching a policy that he could have complied with, not for having a drug addiction. As such, the SCC found that the circumstances of Mr. Stewart’s termination did not raise to a prima facie case of discrimination. Moreover, since the SCC did not find a prima facie case of discrimination, it was not necessary to consider whether accommodating Mr. Stewart would impose an undue hardship on Elk Valley.

Key Takeaways for Employers

The SCC’s decision is a clear win for employers that seek to ensure a safe work environment for their employees. The ruling reaffirms that employers with properly designed drug and alcohol policies have the ability to terminate employees who violate those policies, even when drug addiction is involved. What’s more, employers should consider the following:

  • When developing drug and alcohol policies, including accommodations for addiction can help ensure that employees are incentivized to disclose drug dependency before risky behaviour takes place in a safety-sensitive workplace; and
  • When implementing drug and alcohol policies, employers should make sure that adequate training is provided to employees and that employees expressly acknowledge their understanding of the policy.

Of course, the circumstances in each workplace differ. Accordingly, we encourage employers to discuss issues surrounding drug and alcohol policies and related terminations with their legal counsel before proceeding.

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