Is an employee’s right to practice ethical veganism in the workplace protected under Human Rights legislation? Provincial Human Rights legislation prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of protected characteristics, which often include religion or religious belief. The Ontario Human Rights Code (the “Ontario HRC”) uses the term ‘creed’ in place of religious belief. While ‘creed’ may imply a potentially broader meaning than religious belief (and remind some of a late 90’s rock band), a recent decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal demonstrates that a belief system (such as veganism) must still have the hallmarks of a ‘religion’ to be protected under the Ontario HRC.
In Knauff v. Ontario (Natural Resources and Forestry), the employee was a forest fire fighter who worked at remote worksites where housing and meals were provided by the employer. The employer refused to accommodate the employee’s requests for his meals to meet the dietary requirements of Ethical Veganism, on the basis that the belief system was a creed under the Ontario HRC.
To be considered a creed for the Ontario HRC, a belief system must address the following five characteristics:
- Be sincerely, freely and deeply held
- Be integrally linked to a person’s identity, self-definition and fulfilment
- Address ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence
- Be a particular and comprehensive, overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices
- Have some nexus or connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief
After considering the evidence of the employee and two expert witnesses who testified about the principles of ethical veganism, the Tribunal found that while it satisfied the first two factors of the test, ethical veganism did not address “the existence or non-existence of a Creator and/or a higher or different order of existence, as required by the third part of the test.” The Tribunal held that it did not therefore constitute a creed within the meaning of the HRC and so the complaint was dismissed. Interestingly, the Tribunal did not address the final two factors, suggesting that all five factors must be met in order to satisfy the test.
Was the forest firefighter barking up the tree? Perhaps. It is certainly food for thought. Reasonable people can disagree reasonably about whether ethical veganism addresses “ultimate questions of human existence.” With different evidence about his beliefs, the employee may have been able to satisfy that factor of the test.
Employers on the other hand may be relieved to learn that the standard for ‘creed’ in Ontario is high. Note that most provinces, including B.C. (with its large vegan population) do not list “creed” as a protected ground, although vegans might, depending on the scope or roots of their beliefs, instead invoke the analogous protected ground of ‘religious belief’, which is arguably broader than just “religion”. For now, as legitimate and genuine their concerns about the planet may be, employers are not obligated to accommodate the needs of ethical vegans.
If you want more information on accommodation and Human Rights legislation, you can contact us at:
Geoffrey Howard: email@example.com
Sebastian Chern: firstname.lastname@example.org