Supreme Court of Canada Weighs in on Workplace Drug Policies

Court upholds termination for breach of employer's drug policy

On June 15, the Supreme Court of Canada in Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp.1, affirmed the termination of a coal mine employee with a drug addiction was not discriminatory because it was related to the employee's breach of a workplace drug policy, not his drug addiction. In reaching this decision, the Court relied on the fact the employee had the capacity to comply with the company policy.

What You Need To Know

  • The Court affirmed the basic test to establish prima facie discrimination: the complainant must show (1) they have a characteristic that is protected from discrimination under human rights legislation (e.g., a disability such as addiction, which is a recognized disability under Alberta's Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act); (2) they have experienced an adverse impact within an area protected by human rights legislation (e.g., employment); and (3) the protected characteristic was a factor in the adverse impact.
  • The Court found the termination letter was the most important piece of evidence in this case as it clearly referenced the employee's breach of the workplace drug policy, as opposed to his addiction. If relying on a breach of a company drug policy in terminating an employee, an employer should reference this clearly in the termination letter.
  • The Supreme Court's decision does not permit employers to terminate for breach of company drug policy with impunity. The Court emphasized, based on the specific facts of this case, the employee's capacity to comply with the workplace policy was not in question. It cautioned that in some cases a person with an addiction may be incapable of complying with a workplace policy such that terminating the employee for breaching the policy could be discriminatory.


Ian Stewart was employed as a load driver in a mine operated by the Elk Valley Coal Corporation. Due to the danger of the mine operations, Elk Valley implemented an Alcohol, Illegal Drugs & Medication Policy (the Policy). The Policy mandated that employees were obligated to disclose drug dependence or addiction issues before any drug-related incidents occurred and upon disclosure, would be offered treatment. If employees failed to disclose drug dependence or addiction, were subsequently involved in an incident and tested positive for drugs, they would be terminated. Employees, including Stewart, were trained on the policy and signed forms acknowledging receipt and understanding of the Policy.

Mr. Stewart used cocaine on his days off, and did not disclose this to Elk Valley. Mr. Stewart's loader was involved in an accident and Mr. Stewart tested positive for drugs. In a subsequent meeting with Elk Valley, Mr. Stewart stated that he thought he was addicted to cocaine. Elk Valley terminated Mr. Stewart's employment in accordance with the Policy.

Mr. Stewart argued he was terminated due to his addiction. The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal held that Mr. Stewart was not terminated because of his addiction but rather for breaching the Policy. The Tribunal's decision was affirmed by the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench2 and by the Alberta Court of Appeal.3

The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal and held that the Tribunal's determination with respect to Mr. Stewart's termination was reasonable and should be given deference. In particular, the Court found there was ample evidence–including a clear termination letter–for the Tribunal to conclude Mr. Stewart's employment was terminated because he failed to comply with the terms of the Policy, not because of his drug addiction. The Court also determined it was reasonable for the Tribunal to conclude that Mr. Stewart was not adversely impacted by the Policy because he had the capacity to comply with its terms and chose not to stop or disclose his drug use, notwithstanding his own denial about his addiction.


1 2017 SCC 30

2 2013 ABQB 756

3 2015 ABCA 225

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