Johnstone v. Canada (Border Services Agency): A milestone in recognizing family status discrimination

In the realm of Canadian employment law, few cases have had as far-reaching implications as Johnstone v. Canada (Border Services Agency), 2014 FCA 110.

This landmark Federal Court of Appeal decision set a precedent for what constitutes “family status” discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. By doing so, the ruling has significantly expanded the rights of employees across Canada, offering much-needed clarity and scope to family status as a ground for discrimination.

Background of the Case

Fiona Johnstone was employed as a border services officer at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. When she returned from maternity leave, Johnstone sought more flexible working hours to accommodate her childcare responsibilities. The agency’s existing policy was that only full-time employees could benefit from predictable, regular shifts. Thus, Johnstone’s request was denied.

In response, she filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, asserting that the agency’s refusal to accommodate her request constituted discrimination based on family status. The case climbed the judicial ladder until it reached the Federal Court of Appeal.

The Court’s Decision

The Federal Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Johnstone, stating that the agency’s refusal amounted to discrimination. Importantly, the court laid out a legal test for family status discrimination: an employee must demonstrate that a term or condition of employment interferes with an obligation related to family care. Employers must accommodate such an obligation unless doing so would result in undue hardship.

Impact on Employment Law

Defining Family Status Discrimination

Prior to Johnstone, the interpretation of family status discrimination was vague, and case law was inconsistent. This ruling offered a precise legal test, thereby guiding future court decisions and human resources policies.

Obligation to Accommodate

The case clearly established that employers have an obligation to accommodate employees’ family responsibilities, so long as it does not cause undue hardship. This has led to a sea change in employer practices, from scheduling flexibility to remote work arrangements.

Setting a Legal Precedent

Johnstone v. Canada (Border Services Agency) has become a cornerstone case cited in subsequent litigation. It serves as a benchmark for other cases involving family status discrimination, thus fortifying the rights of employees in similar situations.

Encouraging Transparency

This decision has encouraged a culture of openness between employers and employees. Workers are now more likely to discuss their family commitments openly, without fear of discrimination.

Shifting Workplace Dynamics

Recognizing family status discrimination has had a transformative impact on the employer-employee relationship. It’s driven a shift toward a more inclusive, accommodating work environment that recognizes the diverse needs of today’s workforce.


The Johnstone v. Canada (Border Services Agency) ruling is a watershed moment in Canadian employment law. By providing a concrete definition of family status discrimination and establishing the obligation for employers to accommodate employees’ family responsibilities, it has significantly influenced how workplaces operate.

Not only has the case contributed to a more equitable employment landscape, but it has also set a robust legal framework for addressing family status discrimination. As workplaces continue to evolve, the impact of this seminal decision is likely to be felt for years to come, solidifying its role as one of the most important legal landmarks in Canadian employment law.