On September 21, 2016, the Québec Superior Court issued a judgment (2016 QCCS 4521) concluding that truckers of the Sikh religion were not exempt from the obligation to wear a safety hat while completing certain work-related tasks out of their trucks on various Port of Montréal premises.
The plaintiffs were truckers from different private transportation companies carrying containers to and from several Port of Montréal terminals. They complained that they were denied access to these terminals because of their sincerely held religious beliefs forbidding them to wear a safety hat over their turban.
For a period of nearly three years, one of the defending terminals established an accommodation process for Sikh truckers refusing to wear a safety hat over their turban. This involved procedural modifications to the loading/unloading processes aiming at ensuring that the truckers remained inside their vehicle at all times while the containers were handled. The plaintiffs rejected this approach but other Sikh truckers complied with it. However, the terminal ultimately ceased offering this accommodation because of the major disruptions it caused in its operations.
In this judgment, the Court recognized that the policy imposing the obligation to wear a safety hat for everyone accessing the terminals is a clear breach of the plaintiffs’ right to religious freedom – both under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act. However, such a breach is justified considering that the policy’s aim is to ensure the safety of persons working on these terminals and that proof of its necessity was convincing.
It goes to show that if an employer has a legitimate safety concern, safety measures and policies can be implemented even when they infringe on certain employees’ fundamental rights. However, the circumstances in which these policies are implemented or enforced can potentially influence a tribunal’s decision on their validity. The absence of good faith or, as it seems to have been the case in the present situation, lack of collaboration from either party in the accommodation process will almost certainly affect the outcome of a complaint.