Often described as a high-water mark of judicial activism in Canada, the Vriend case involved an allegation that Alberta’s provincial human rights legislation was too narrow, and therefore inconsistent with the Charter.
An instructor at a private college whose employment had been terminated on account of his homosexuality had attempted to file a human rights complaint against his former employer. The complaint was dismissed, however, on the grounds that “sexual orientation” was not a protected ground under the Alberta Individual’s Rights Protection Act. Mr. Vriend proceeded to sue the province, arguing that its human rights legislation was inconsistent with the Charter (which the Supreme Court of Canada had previously read as preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).
In Vriend v. Alberta, the Supreme Court took the aggressive and largely unprecedented step of “reading in” sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination, thereby forcing Alberta’s Human Rights Commission to accept complaints alleging discrimination on this basis.
This ruling was seen by many as overstepping what the Charter is really designed to do. Although Section 15 clearly prevents discrimination on the part of government agencies, provincial human rights legislation applies to relationships between private individuals and groups (i.e. employers and employees, landlords and tenants, etc.) To say that “because the Charter prohibits public discrimination on the basis of x, each province must prohibit private discrimination on the basis of x” arguably runs counter to what the Charter is all about (i.e. protecting citizens from government) and moves into the realm of requiring government to micromanage the lives and relationships of citizens.
All in all, Vriend v. Alberta can be described as a troubling decision, but remains the law of the land to this day.
Click here for the full text of the decision.