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Can an employer fire you for drug or alcohol addiction?

Employers can terminate employees for many reasons, but is substance addiction one of them?

If you have a serious drug or alcohol problem and your employer is aware of it, you cannot be fired without your employer making reasonable accommodations for you.

That’s because the Canadian Human Rights Act sees dependency on alcohol or drugs as a disability and provincial statutes forbid discrimination based on physical or mental disabilities, which includes alcohol or drug addictions.

However, it has to be a regular dependence on drugs and alcohol. Recreational use is not enough to claim you have an addiction that is a disability under human rights codes.

Federal Policy

Canadian Human Rights Act

The act defines a “disability” as: any previous or existing mental or physical disability and includes disfigurement and previous or existing dependence on alcohol or a drug.”

Provincial Policy

The provinces have their own human rights legislation, which contain their own definitions of what constitutes a disability.

For example:

Ontario

Ontario’s Human Rights Code forbids the discrimination of a person based on “mental health disabilities or addictions.” This protection extends to five “social areas,” including employment.

Manitoba

Manitoba’s Human Rights Commission Board of Commissioner’s policy defines disability as including “physical or mental disability” that may include “actual or perceived previous or existing or potential dependence on alcohol, drugs, or addictive substances, and may include addiction to gambling.”

Alberta

Just as in the other provinces, drug and alcohol addiction are medically recognized addictions and are protected as a disability under human rights law. In Alberta, a drug and alcohol dependency is protected under physical and mental disabilities.

British Columbia

Although it’s not spelled out in the province’s human rights code, drug and alcohol addictions, whether perceived or real, fall under the meaning of a disability. Once again, employers have the legal duty to accommodate the employee and cannot just fire an employee for dependency on drugs or alcohol.

Quebec

Quebec, too, has adopted the definition of disability to include addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Saskatchewan

The province’s Human Rights Commission has released a guide on drug and alcohol testing and maintains that dependence on drugs and alcohol trigger human rights protections.

Prince Edward Island

P.E.I, too, lists drug and alcohol addiction as a disability due to its long term and debilitating effects.

Newfoundland and Labrador

The Employer’s Guide to the Human Rights Code warns employers that alcohol and drug dependency is considered a disability and has to be treated accordingly.

New Brunswick

The province’s Accommodation at Work guide was released that talks about alcohol and drug dependency as a disability that has to be accommodated just like any of the other grounds.

Northwest Territories

Under areas and grounds for discrimination, the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission defines a disability as a “mental or physical condition” that is “permanent, ongoing, episodic, or of some persistence and imposes a substantial or significant limit in carrying out some of life’s functions or activities.”

While it’s not spelled out, it’s safe to assume drug and alcohol addictions fall under these grounds.

Nunavut

The territory’s Consolidation of Human Rights Act includes drug or alcohol dependency as a disability that means “any previous or existing or perceived mental or physical disability and includes disfigurement and previous or existing dependency on alcohol or a drug.”

Nova Scotia

Alcohol and drug addiction is defined as a "physical disability or mental disability" that means an “actual or perceived dependency on drugs or alcohol.”

Yukon

While the province’s Human Rights Act doesn’t go into specifics about what is included in the definition of disability, it’s safe to assume, based on the federal code and the other provinces, that drug and alcohol dependency is included.

Supreme Court of Canada

A 2006 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada — Tranchemontagne v. Ontario — ruled addiction is a disability, and found that a person cannot be denied social benefits if the existing provincial human rights code says that alcoholism and drug addiction is a disability.

It's important to keep in mind that the law is always changing and human rights leglislation that doesn't currently include drug or alcohol dependency as a disability in their code or definitions, may well do so eventually.

Read more:

Canadian Human Rights Act

Tranchemontagne v. Ontario