Justice Symbol

Lawyers and advocates were concerned — especially for marginalized people — that unionized workers would lose access to the human rights tribunal.

Unionized workers in Ontario will still be able to file complaints independently at the province’s human rights tribunal, the tribunal has determined, despite a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that limits access to that process in Manitoba.

Ontario’s decision comes as the tribunal examined two cases, one involving the London District Catholic School Board and the other Peel police. Canada’s Supreme Court earlier this year limited access to tribunals for unionized workers in the Manitoba case Northern Regional Health Authority v. Horrocks.

“I think many labour lawyers are relieved. Especially those of us that deal with marginalized groups,” said lawyer Gary Bennett, who represents three female police officers who filed a complaint against Peel police, dissatisfied with how the force and their union handled sexual harassment complaints.

“(Marginalized people) maintain this absolutely valuable right, which gives them access to a human rights tribunal and access to justice, even if their union says no,” said Bennett.

As a result of the Supreme Court decision, unionized workers in Manitoba would have to rely on their union process to resolve workplace human rights disputes, and could no longer seek recourse on their own through the tribunal process.

When a worker is unionized and has a dispute with their employer, matters are typically handled or grieved within the union, and a labour arbitrator handles resolving the issue.

But lawyers like Bennett and other advocates raised concerns with unionized workers losing access to the human rights tribunal process, especially for equity-seeking groups like racialized people, women, LGBTQ people and disabled people.

There is a chance that they can face challenges bringing issues forward if the union doesn’t reflect their identity.

“We have workplaces with predominantly white members and the management is also white. And so it’s hard for them to actually understand or put themselves in the shoes of those that are experiencing discrimination, or filing these complaints,” said Yolanda McClean, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

That’s true for cases like the one Bennett represents: police forces are male-dominated, he previously told the Star, as are police unions; there is a chance that gendered complaints may not be treated equally.

McClean added, “The tribunal has an expertise, I believe, that’s been developed over the years and it has been a necessary option for unionized workers.”