A recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal highlights the importance of the decision in Weber v. Ontario Hydro almost 20 years later. In Weber, the Supreme Court of Canada had to determine whether legislatures had granted exclusive jurisdiction to labour arbitrators to deal with all issues of interpretation, application or alleged violation of a collective agreement, or if they shared concurrent jurisdiction with the courts. Under the former model, unionized employers and employees would have virtually no recourse to the courts if their disputes could be said to arise under the collective agreement. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected concurrent jurisdiction, and stated very clearly that all issues arising in the unionized workplace that fell within the four corners of the collective agreement had to go to arbitration.
The employee in George v. Anishinabek (Police Service) was a member of the Anishinabek Police Service (the "APS") who was facing discipline. Under a tri-partite agreement among the federal and provincial governments and several First Nations, the APS was retained to provide policing services within certain APS territories. Oversight of APS policing was granted to the Police Governing Authority ("PGA"), which was also responsible for decision-making under APS' Code of Conduct for its employees. The PGA was also the "employer" of all APS staff, and was bound to a collective agreement with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which provided a grievance procedure for all issues falling under the collective agreement. Under the APS Code, decisions on discipline were to be made within 6 months of an incident, but with some discretion for the PGA to extend those timelines. Mr. George was advised of a disciplinary hearing more than 12 months after an incident on the job, but was not given notice that APS had sought an extension of the time to commence a proceeding under the Code. As a result, he brought an application for judicial review in the Divisional Court to quash the notice of disciplinary hearing (on the basis of a lack of procedural fairness), and was successful. The APS appealed that decision.
At the Divisional Court, the APS did not challenge the court's jurisdiction to judicially review the decision of PGA, but this was the central issue in its appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal. While appellate courts will usually not allow parties to argue points that were not argued in the courts below, they did permit APS to pursue this argument as it might be determinative of the matter, could be argued on the existing record without further evidence, and would not be overly prejudicial to the respondent. On the question of whether the Divisional Court had jurisdiction to engage in judicial review, the Court of Appeal relied on Weber to find that the answer was "no". Under Weber, a court must consider the nature of the dispute, and whether that dispute falls within the ambit of the collective agreement in question. In applying the test to the circumstances of the case, Justice Doherty (writing for a unanimous court) found that the issue revolved around discipline. While discipline was a matter covered by the Code, the Code was simply the mechanism by which the employer exercised its management rights under the collective agreement. Accordingly, the dispute in question was one that fell within a labour arbitrator's exclusive jurisdiction, and the issue of procedural fairness should not have been addressed by the Divisional Court.
The Court of Appeal's decision serves as a good reminder of the extent to which a collective bargaining relationship changes the dynamics of a workplace. Not only are typical employee relations issues barred from the courts, but any dispute or matter of interpretation, including those that arise under employment-related statutes, should be brought before an arbitrator for determination. It is therefore important for employers to ensure that they are mindful of Weber when confronted with a claim (or the threat of a claim) in the courts, and to argue that the issue should be resolved in grievance arbitration.
Do you have questions about labour relations or other employment-related litigation? Contact Lance Ceaser for assistance.