5 Years And Counting: Suncor Wins Another Round in its Fight to Introduce Random Testing

October 24, 2017


On October 15, 2012, Suncor Energy Inc. (“Suncor”) introduced a drug and alcohol policy that permitted it to engage in random drug and alcohol testing for workers occupying safety sensitive positions. Unifor Local 707A (“Unifor”), the designated bargaining agent for certain Suncor employees, filed a grievance on the basis that the policy infringed individual privacy rights. The matter proceeded to arbitration where, following a 23 day arbitration hearing, the majority concluded that Suncor failed to demonstrate that it had a general problem with substance abuse at its workplace, and that the policy imposed by Suncor was not proportionate to the concern it hoped to address. While Suncor led extensive evidence about employee substance abuse problems at its Fort McMurray operations (over 2,000 drug or alcohol related incidents), much of Suncor’s evidence related to the workplace as a whole, and did not distinguish between unionized employees, non-unionized employees, and contractors’ employees. The arbitration panel concluded that Suncor’s evidence was “unparticularized” and “unrefined”, and therefore could not form the basis for a finding that Suncor’s workplace had a substance abuse problem. A majority of the arbitration panel allowed the grievance and ruled in favour of Unifor. Suncor applied for judicial review of the decision, and the reviewing justice held that the majority decision was unreasonable and sent the matter back for reconsideration by a new arbitration panel. Unifor then appealed the decision to the Alberta Court of Appeal.


The Alberta Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, finding that the arbitration panel’s decision in allowing the grievance was unreasonable as it failed to consider (or misunderstood) Suncor’s evidence about substance abuse problems at its workplace. Instead of considering the evidence as a whole, the arbitration panel inappropriately discounted the entirety of Suncor’s substance abuse evidence as it was not specific to the bargaining unit. In doing so, the Alberta Court of Appeal was of the view that the arbitration panel conflated the concepts of jurisdiction and evidence, and held that it committed a reviewable error in the process. Specifically:

The first issue is the tribunal’s jurisdiction to decide only those matters arising under the collective agreement. The second issue is what evidence is relevant to whether there is a general problem of substance abuse in the workplace. These two questions are distinct. Simply because the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to impose or endorse drug and alcohol testing of non-unionized employees does not mean that Suncor’s overall experience with substance abuse in its Fort McMurray operations had no bearing on the question before the tribunal. As the reviewing justice correctly noted, “[w]hile it is true that the arbitration decision is binding only upon members of the bargaining unit, it does not follow that the Board could take account only of evidence tied directly to that bargaining unit”: para 78. It was reasonable for the tribunal to conclude that Suncor’s desire to expand random drug and alcohol testing to contractor employees should not influence how the tribunal balances unionized employees’ privacy against worksite safety. But the majority went further, and unreasonably concluded that these “jurisdictional” considerations required the tribunal to blind itself to logically relevant evidence.

The Alberta Court of Appeal dismissed Unifor’s appeal and affirmed the reviewing justice’s decision to remit the matter to a new arbitration.

Our Views

While the question before the Alberta Court of Appeal was whether the reviewing court chose and applied the appropriate standard of review, this decision represents some progress for unionized employers seeking to implement random drug and alcohol testing for workers occupying safety-sensitive positions. This decision is one of several recent decisions that appear to be prioritizing the health and safety of the workplace over the individual rights of employees (see TTC, Elk Valley Coal). While the matter is being remitted to a new arbitration panel for reconsideration, we are hopeful that Suncor will succeed in upholding its random drug and alcohol policy given the evidence that it presented before the original panel; in particular, 2,276 documented on-site drug and alcohol incidents. Once the entirety of Suncor’s substance abuse evidence is considered (including evidence outside the bargaining unit), it seems likely that it will be able to satisfy the high bar set by the Supreme Court of Canada in Irving thereby permitting random drug testing of workers in safety sensitive positions (i.e. a “pervasive problem” or “out-of-control drug culture”). That said, Unifor has signalled that it intends to appeal, recently stating that it will: “take all available action to fight this abusive policy, including a potential motion to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.” We will keep our subscribers up-to-date on any future developments.

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