Northern Exposure

In ‘denial’: Alberta Court of Appeal revisits addiction in the workplace

by Hannah Roskey

The Alberta Court of Appeal recently released its decision in Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corporation, a must-read for Canadian employers dealing with employee addiction issues.

In lengthy reasons, a majority of the court agreed that there was no discrimination when an employee under the influence of cocaine was fired following a workplace accident. However, contrary to the findings of the Court of Queen’s Bench, the Court of Appeal also determined that the employee had been reasonably accommodated even though he was in “denial” of his addiction.


The employee (IS) was employed by Elk Valley Coal Corporation, the operator of a coal mine. His position involved the operation of large vehicles and equipment. It was admitted for the purposes of the proceedings that the coal mine was a safety-sensitive workplace, and the employee’s job was safety-sensitive.

In 2005, Elk Valley introduced a new drug and alcohol policy. This policy included a provision that employees “with dependency or addiction” could seek rehabilitation without fear of discipline before the occurrence of a work-related accident. For employees who disclosed their dependency or addiction after an accident, discipline or termination would result. IS attended a training session on the policy and signed a form indicating that he understood it.

In October 2005, IS was involved in a worksite accident when the loader truck he was operating struck another truck. He later tested positive for cocaine. IS informed his employer that, prior to the incident, he “didn’t think [he] had a problem with drugs” but later came to realize that he did.

The employee’s employment was terminated in November 2005. The union filed a human rights complaint, arguing that IS was disabled by his addiction to cocaine and was fired on account of his disability.

Prior decisions

The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal found that there was no discrimination and dismissed the complaint. Although the tribunal agreed that IS had a disability, it determined that his disability did not constitute a “real factor” in his termination and that he was sufficiently in control of his addiction to comply with his employer’s policy.

The tribunal’s decision was appealed to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. The chambers judge agreed that there was no discrimination, but in the alternative, disagreed that IS was reasonably accommodated by his employer. As IS initially did not think that he suffered from an addiction, the chambers judge found that the ameliorative aspect of the policy was not realistically open to him and therefore he was not accommodated.

Court of Appeal decision

In a 2-1 split, the Court of Appeal agreed that there had been no discrimination. The employee’s employment was terminated in accordance with the policy, and the policy itself was not discriminatory, as an employee with an addiction disability might be caught by it but so could an employee without any disability.

On the accommodation issue, the majority of the court overruled the chambers judge. The court rejected the suggestion that IS’s denial of his addiction could excuse him from making his employer aware of the need for accommodation. To do otherwise, the court stated, would create a situation where a claim of denial after an incident could be treated as a “potential vaccine” against discipline, undermining efforts to maintain a safe workplace.

Takeaway for employers in Canada

This decision is very employer-friendly. It suggests that policies that encourage employees to self-report their addictions prior to a workplace accident, but take more extreme action if those addictions are not disclosed and result in an incident are acceptable. The decision also rejects the notion that a higher standard of accommodation is required when an employee is in denial about a substance abuse problem.

However, employers also should be mindful that there is a strong dissent in this decision and should consult with counsel in Canadian jurisdictions in which they do business regarding the implications of the decision. Stay tuned for further developments.

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