Martin v Alberta, Federal Employees, and Workplace Injuries: Just Like the Rest of Us
In Martin v Alberta (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2014 SCC 25, the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) resolved an issue that had been treated inconsistently by appellate courts across Canada. The SCC held that workplace compensation claims of federal employees, who are subject to the Government Employees Compensation Act, RSC 1985, c G-5 [GECA], are generally governed by the compensation regime of the province wherein they usually work.
Martin, the claimant in this case, began work for Parks Canada in 1973. He took medical leave in December 23, 2006 claiming a psychological condition. He initiated a claim for compensation the following month “for chronic onset stress” (para 6).
As required by the GECA, Martin applied for compensation through the Alberta worker compensation system. Three levels of decision-makers denied the claim “on the basis that it did not meet the criteria set out in [Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board of Directors’ Policy 03-01, Part II, Application 6]” (“Policy”) (para 7).
In this case, Martin challenged the application of the Policy. He argued that s. 4(1) of the GECA set out a “complete eligibility test” in regards to federal employee compensation (para 15). Provincial law, he claimed, had no impact on whether he received compensation; it could only change the amount he recovered. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench agreed with Martin and held “that the provincial Policy did not apply” (para 8). The Alberta Court of Appeal, on the other hand, concluded that the Policy did apply and “did not conflict with the GECA” (para 9).
The Main Issue
Section 4(1) of the GECA establishes that employees who are injured through work activities, and their dependants, are entitled to compensation. Section 4(2) qualifies this general right to recovery:
The employee or the dependants referred to in subsection (1) are, notwithstanding the nature or class of the employment, entitled to receive compensation at the same rate and under the same conditions as are provided under the law of the province where the employee is usually employed….
Section 4(2) was at issue in this case. Because the claimant suffered from chronic onset stress, the Policy limited the circumstances under which Martin could claim compensation. If the Policy applied under s. 4(2), the previous decision was correct and Martin could not recover. If it did not apply, and the GECA stood alone, Martin’s claim was more likely to succeed because of the vagueness of the statute.
The SCC found the administrative decision reasonable. The Policy applied. The SCC based its holding on the text and scheme of the act and its legislative purpose.
The Text and Scheme of the GECA
The SCC held that Martin’s reading of s. 4 was contrary to a literal interpretation of the GECA. Section 4(1), according to the SCC, does no more than “simply [state] that federal workers injured in accidents on the job are to be compensated subject to the GECA” (para 27). The statute, however, fails to set any real limits to its application. The absence of any limiting scope made it more likely that s. 4(2) and 4(3) express an intent that “[p]rovincial institutions and laws … provide the structure and boundaries necessary to determine whether and how much compensation is to be paid to federal employees” (para 27).
In essence, s. 4(2) was designed to “[provide] parallel entitlements to all workers within a given province” by subjecting federal workers to the laws of the provincial jurisdiction wherein they work [emphasis in original] (para 23). This, according to the SCC, was an intentional decision that reflects the GECA’s legislative history and purpose.
The Legislative Purpose
The GECA’s predecessor act, and statements made by the legislature, all indicated that Parliament had, since 1918, intended federal employees to have the same rights as other workers in the province where they worked. In other words, the GECA was designed so that “provincial laws and provincial boards [generally determined] federal workers’ compensation claims” (para 28).
That said, those sources also indicated that “Parliament … intended to enact specific exceptions to its reliance on provincial law” (para 36). The SCC was careful to add that “[w]here a direct conflict between the provincial law and the GECA exists, the GECA will prevail…” (para 39).
Given the GECA’s structure and history, the SCC held that the Policy was applicable to Martin’s claim.
Did the Policy Conflict with the GECA?
Martin also argued, if provincial law did apply in general, that the Policy could not be used in this instance. According to him, the Policy “unreasonably and unfairly [imposed] a stricter causative requirement” that was inconsistent, and therefore in conflict, with the GECA’s broad definition of “accident” (para 42).
The SCC rejected this argument. It held that the GECA’s definition of accident merely “sets out a minimum content, but is neither exhaustive nor limiting. It is permissive and flexible, consistent with Parliament’s intention to delegate the administration of workers’ compensation to the provincial agencies” (para 49). As such, “the Policy’s requirement that chronic stress arise as a result of ‘excessive or unusual events…” did not conflict with the GECA (para 54).
This case is important for two particular reasons. On a strictly legal reading, it provides clarity for federal employees. They now know they fall under the provincial compensation regimes, subject to any conflicts that may arise. In the case of eligibility, conflicts will only arise “where the GECA regime has specifically included or excluded matters from compensation…” (para 40). This creates considerable clarity in the law, especially on issues of eligibility. It is important to remember that some provincial appellate courts had previously reached conflicting conclusions on this very point.
The case is also important in a broader sense. Martin’s argument suggests that chronic stress is treated unfairly in some worker compensation schemes. The SCC did not say Martin was wrong when he argued that such claimants faced a higher burden, when seeking compensation, than those who suffer physical injuries; indeed, the SCC did not make any substantive comment on the appellant’s appeal to Charter values in regards to that exact disparity.
This case indicates that federal employees face the same sort of workers’ compensation laws as other workers in the same province. It also speaks to how claimants of stress based workplace injuries sometimes face greater barriers to compensation than claimants of physical impairments.