Do the BC COVID-19 Vaccination Passport Orders Prevail Over Human Rights Legislation Requiring Disability Accommodation?

The law regarding BC’s COVID-19 vaccination passport and entry into various establishments in the province was published today. This post discusses the publication of the relevant orders, their lack of human rights (disability) accommodations, the issue of whether they prevail over the discrimination protections set out in the Human Rights Code, their relationship with the Charter, and the protections available to service providers who follow them. Activities that are not covered by the orders will be set out in a later post.

Publication of the Orders

While BC Premier John Horgan, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced the upcoming provincial health order(s) on August 23, 2021, the law itself was not published here on the BC Office of the Provincial Health Officer website until yesterday evening and this morning. The Provincial Health Officer Order regarding post-secondary institution housing and the COVID-19 vaccine cards is dated September 9, 2021 but was published yesterday evening. The Provincial Health Officer Orders regarding the COVID-19 vaccine passport and food and liquor serving premises is dated yesterday September 10, 2021 but was published today, and the Order regarding COVID-19 vaccination passports and “gatherings and events” is also dated yesterday but was published this morning. In this post, I will call all three of these, taken together, the “Orders.”

Lack of Human Rights (Disability) Accommodations

Further to my post of August 23, 2021 and in line with what Dr. Henry stated at the press conference regarding the anticipated Orders on August 23, 2021, the Orders do not provide exemptions for people who cannot get vaccinated or provide proof of vaccination for medical reasons. The only people who the orders make exemptions for are those under 12 years of age. This means that the orders will conflict with the BC Human Rights Code, which prohibits discrimination and requires service providers to accommodate people with disabilities to the greatest extent possible. The orders also conflict with the guidance of BC’s Human Rights Commissioner, who released a policy guidance document in July, 2021 affirming that service providers must seek to accommodate people who are unable to get vaccinated on the grounds of their BC Human Rights Code protected characteristics (disability, religion, family status, etc.).

The orders are more restrictive than the current order regarding face coverings in indoor spaces, which does include human rights exemptions for people with disabilities, as follows:

Requests to Reconsider Order

Though there is not specific provision for disability accommodations in the Orders, there is mention that persons who want to avoid complying with the Orders can ask the Provincial Health Officer (Dr. Bonnie Henry) directly for reconsideration of the Orders applying to them. The process is set out in section 43 of the Public Health Act as follows:

The manner of making requests is set out by the Provincial Health Officer as follows:

As such, the Order can only be varied in relation to certain individuals in a limited set of circumstances, when a request is made to the Provincial Health Officer with documentation from a medical practitioner that the health of a person would be “seriously jeopardized” if the person were to receive the vaccine, as well as the person’s relevant medical records. And consideration of these requests is discretionary; there’s no guarantee for an exemption even with the required medical documentation.

Do the Orders Prevail Over the Human Rights Code?

There is uncertainty surrounding whether service providers who are in breach of the Human Rights Code due to acting in accordance with the Public Health Officer orders will be shielded from liability for discrimination. On the one hand, there are Public Health Act provisions meant to protect those who are following the Orders from legal and other adverse action. However, at the same time, there is a paramountcy provision in the Human Rights Code stipulating that if there is a conflict between the Human Rights Code and another enactment (such as the Public Health Act), the Human Rights Code prevails.

Public Health Act Provisions Regarding Immunity from Legal Proceedings

The provisions of the Public Health Act that give immunity to service providers responsible for the vaccine passport screening are as follows:

As such, it may be that service providers acting in accordance with the order but contrary to the Human Rights Code cannot have a human rights complaint brought against them successfully UNLESS they are acting in bad faith. It is a high threshold for finding bad faith conduct and it would need to involve something uniquely egregious.

However, sections 92 and 93 of the Public Health Act may also be read narrowly so that they only capture court actions (for example in tort or contract) for damages, but not human rights complaints brought in the BC Human Rights Tribunal. Or the provisions could be interpreted so that they allow a complainant to successfully bring a human rights complaint, but not be entitled to any damages.

Further uncertainty comes with analyzing the Public Health Act provisions in the context of the Human Rights Code‘s paramountcy provision, and that is discussed further, below.

Additional Public Health Act Protection from Adverse Action for Service Providers

In addition to being shielded from legal proceedings, potentially including human rights complaints, service providers acting in accordance with the orders are also generally shielded from any “adverse action,” which is defined as “an action that would adversely affect, or that threatens to adversely affect, the personal, financial or other interests of a person, or a relative, dependent, friend or business or other close associate of that person, and includes any prescribed action.” This means that if someone feels aggrieved by a service provider carrying out an order and so attempts to take adverse action against that service provider in some way, they’re potentially contravening the Public Health Act section 94. One such contravention might include the recent rumours that opponents of the vaccination passports plan to call restaurants carrying out the order and make fake take out orders to harm the businesses.

It is possible that this provision may also be interpreted as preventing potential complainants from successfully bringing a complaint under the BC Human Rights Code, because doing so could potentially be interpreted as an “adverse action.” However, it does not appear that the intention of this provision was to capture human rights complaints, and this section of the Public Health Act is so broad that it may potentially be unconstitutional. And again, further uncertainty comes with analyzing the Public Health Act provisions in the context of the Human Rights Code‘s paramountcy provision, and that is discussed further, below

As per section 99 of the Public Health Act, contraventions of section 94 are an offence. Section 99 offences can come with alternative penalties under section 107 such as paying a person compensation and/or, additionally under section 108 of the Public Health Act, a fine of up to $25,000, imprisonment of up to 6 months, or both.

No Mention of Human Rights Code in Events and Gatherings Order

Interestingly, there is no mention of the BC Human Rights Code in the third order regarding events and gatherings. In contrast, the other two Provincial Health Officer orders regarding food and liquor establishments and university housing have included a provision in their preamble regarding the Provincial Health Officer’s consideration of the Human Rights Code. For example, in the preamble to the order regarding vaccine passports at university housing, the following is stated about the Human Rights Code:

O. In addition, I recognize the interests protected by the Human Rights Code, and have taken these into consideration when exercising my powers to protect the health interests of residents, staff and faculty at post-secondary institutions;

Human Rights Code Paramountcy Provision

Although there is no mention of the Human Rights Code in one of the Orders, the code still generally applies when someone experiences an adverse effect (such as being denied entry to a venue) as a result of their disability not being accommodated by a service provider.

The Public Health Act sections potentially shielding service providers from human rights code liability for discrimination, or having to pay damages for discrimination, must be read and analyzed with reference to section 4 of the Human Rights Code, which stipulates as follows:

Code prevails

4   If there is a conflict between this Code and any other enactment, this Code prevails.

Given this section of the Human Rights Code, a complainant could argue before the Human Rights Tribunal that although the Orders mandate vaccination cards without any reasonable exemption to accommodate for disability, this conflicts with the Human Rights Code, which requires accommodation. Per section 4 of the Human Rights Code, the code, with it’s accommodation requirements, prevails.

Further, a complainant could also potentially argue before the Human Rights Tribunal that although the Public Health Act provides immunity from legal proceedings for damages and protection from adverse actions to service providers when they follow the Orders, this conflicts with the Human Rights Code, which allows complainants to bring a human rights complaint, for damages, when they have been discriminated against. Per section 4 of the Human Rights Code, the prevailing provisions are those of the Human Rights Code that allow a complainant to bring a human rights complaint for damages.

Constitution/Charter of Rights and Freedoms Consideration

All three of the recent orders regarding vaccination passports do include a provision regarding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I often hear people bringing up the issue of these types of orders violating their charter rights and therefore being of no force and effect. That is not necessarily true. Under Canada’s Charter, it is possible for law to violate constitutionally protected rights, but in a way that is considered justified per the Charter. And so in that case, a court considering a Charter challenge can uphold a law even though it was considered unconstitutional, because the Court finds this justified under the Charter. The Orders bring up this issue by stating as follows in their preambles:

I further recognize that constitutionally-protected interests include the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to life, liberty and security of the person, along with freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression. These rights and freedoms are not, however, absolute and are subject to reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. These limits include proportionate, precautionary and evidence-based restrictions to prevent loss of life, serious illness and disruption of our health system and society. When exercising my powers to protect the health of the public from the risks posed by COVID-19, I am aware of my obligation to choose measures that limit the Charter rights and freedoms of British Columbians less intrusively, where doing so is consistent with public health principles;

Activities Not Covered By the Orders

Service providers and unvaccinated potential service users are likely to be confused about exactly who can attend what facilities and services, when. The government announcement on August 23, 2021 framed the vaccination passports as being required primarily at “non-essential” services. However, the orders are framed differently. One order applies to university housing, the second to food and liquor service premises, and the third to “gatherings and events.”

I plan on discussing what is not covered by the Orders in a separate post, which will follow.

COVID-19 Amounts to Disability & Employers Must Accommodate Employees Amidst the Crisis, BC Human Rights Commissioner States

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On March 23, 2020, BC’s Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender released a statement on COVID-19, saying that in her view, COVID-19 amounts to a disability. While she recognized that in the rapidly changing circumstances, there has not been time for courts of the BC Human Rights Tribunal to weigh in on the matter, she was prepared to provide her opinion. She gave the following reasoning:

The seriousness of this illness – and the potential stigma that attaches to it – make it more akin to the legal protections that apply to HIV than to the common cold. Therefore, discrimination on the basis of someone having (or appearing to have) COVID-19, is prohibited under the Code except where the duty bearer can justify such treatment (for example, to prohibit or diminish the transmission of the virus).

Commissioner Govender also asserted that in addition to the BC Human Rights Code protecting people with the virus from being discriminated against, it also protects people from being discriminated against based on the ethnicity, place of origin, race, colour, or ancestry. This means employers, landlords, and service providers “cannot discriminate against someone on the basis of whether a person comes from (or appears to come from) a COVID-19 hotspot such as Italy or China.”

Additionally, she stated, discrimination based on family status is protected. This means that with the closure of daycares and schools, duty bearers must accommodate parents so that they can ensure their children are cared for.

According to Commissioner Govender, employers have a number of duties in the midst of COVID-19. They cannot make discipline or firing decisions based on someone having (or exhibiting symptoms of) COVID-19 (although they can lay employees off if there is not enough work for the as a result of the impacts of COVID-19). They must accommodate employees that may have COVID-19, or are particularly vulerable to COVID-19 (for example if they are elderly or immunocompromised) by providing flexible arrangements, such as working from home.

Commissioner Govender also presented a survey for citizens to complete in order to assist her with carrying out her duties and advocate for people facing discrimination during the pandemic. The survey asks about how your human rights are being impacted during COVID-19 and you are encouraged to fill it out.

Legislation Allows BC Employees Unpaid COVID-19-Related Leave

On Monday, March 23, 2020, the British Columbia Government amended the BC Employment Standards Act with Bill 16 – Employment Standards Amendment Act (No. 2), 2020  to grant BC employees the ability to take a job-protected unpaid COVID-19-related leave.

This leave was mentioned in our previous post regarding human rights, employment law, and COVID-19, however, the legislation and details contained within it were not known until March 23, 2020.

In introducing the new legislation in parliament, the Honourable Michael Farnworth stated the following:

Bill 16 amends the Employment Standards Act to provide unpaid job-protected leave to employees in British Columbia during the COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 is an unprecedented public health emergency for British Columbians and for people across Canada and around the world.

The most important part of our work is protecting British Columbians. During this crisis, no employee will lose their job or be fired for following an order of the provincial health officer or for needing to care for a child whose school is closed.

According to section 52.12(2) of the legislation, employees are entitled to unpaid leave if, in relation to COVID-19, any of the following situations apply:

  1. the employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is acting in accordance with their doctor or an order of a medical health officer;
  2. the employee is in quarantine or self-isolation in accordance with an order of the provincial health officer (Dr. Bonnie Henry – her Orders are available here), an order made under the Quarantine Act (for example, the most recent emergency order requiring persons entering Canada from elsewhere to self-isolate for 14 days), guidelines of the BC Centre for Disease Control (available here), or guidelines of the Public Health Agency of Canada (available here);
  3. the employer, due to a concern about exposing others, has directed the employee not to work;
  4. the employee is providing care to their child due to the closure of the child’s school, daycare, or similar facility; or
  5. the employee is outside the province and cannot return to BC because of travel or border restrictions.

These circumstances outlined in section 52.12(2) are quite broad, as they allow people to follow not only the provincial health officer’s orders, but her recommendations as well. For example, when the legislation was being debated, MLA Sonia Fursteau asked for confirmation that it protects a cashier with significant respiratory issues from needing to attend work. Someone in this position is protected because the provincial health minister has recommended that they not attend work.

Section 52.12(3) of the legislation allows the leave to carry on for as long as the circumstances in section 52.12(2) apply to the employee.

The Employment Standards Act, as amended, allows the employer to request proof the the above circumstance exists; however, the employee is not required to provide a doctor’s note. What kind of proof is required will thus vary according to the circumstances and is yet to be seen. If an employee needs to take the leave due to their child’s daycare being closed, for example, a letter from the daycare notifying parents of the closure may be sufficient proof.

The Employment Standards Amendment Act also came with transitional provisions that make employees eligible for the leave as of January 27, 2020 (the first day a coronavirus case was reported in BC). This means that if an employee is already off of work because of an eligible situation set out in section 52.12(2), they cannot be terminated. It also means that if an employee was terminated after January 27, 2020 but before March 23, 2020, due to the circumstances outlined in section 52.12(2), the employer must offer the employee re-employment in the same or a comparable position.

Presumably, if an employee is terminated in the above circumstances, for example when they need to stay home and care for a child who has lost childcare, a human rights complaint could still be available as well.