Home Arbitration/Labour Relations Supreme Court of Canada affirms teachers’ workplace privacy rights

Supreme Court of Canada affirms teachers’ workplace privacy rights

by HR Law Canada

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ontario public school boards are subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly Section 8, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The case centered on a dispute involving two elementary school teachers from York Region in Ontario, whose private communications were accessed by their principal, leading to disciplinary action.

One of the intriguing aspects of this case was the method by which the principal accessed the teachers’ private log. The log, a personal, password-protected document stored in the cloud, was accessed when the principal used a school laptop in one of the teacher’s classrooms.

The principal scrolled through the document and took screenshots with his cellphone. This invasive action sparked a significant legal battle, culminating in the Supreme Court’s decision.

Background

The events occurred during the 2014-15 school year at a public school within the York Region District School Board. Teachers Ms. Shen and Ms. Rai maintained a shared log to document workplace concerns. This log, stored in the cloud via their personal Gmail accounts, was not on any school system or device, ensuring its privacy.

The principal, aware of the log through staff discussions, conducted an IT search which yielded no results. Subsequently, he entered Ms. Shen’s classroom, saw the laptop open, and accessed the log. He then read and took screenshots of the log’s content, which was later used by the school board to issue written reprimands to the teachers.

Legal proceedings

The teachers’ union, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, filed a grievance against the discipline, arguing that the search violated the teachers’ privacy rights. Initially, a labour arbitrator dismissed the grievance, reasoning that the teachers’ reasonable expectation of privacy was outweighed by the school board’s interest in managing the workplace.

The case moved to judicial review. The Ontario Divisional Court upheld the arbitrator’s decision, with a majority ruling that no Charter issues arose from the search because the workplace environment did not warrant the same privacy expectations as a criminal context.

However, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this decision, ruling unanimously that the arbitrator’s decision was unreasonable and that the search violated Section 8 of the Charter.

Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the Court of Appeal, dismissing the appeal by the York Region District School Board. The ruling emphasized that Ontario public school boards are inherently governmental entities and thus subject to the Charter.

The Court found that the arbitrator had erred by failing to consider the legal framework under Section 8, which should have constrained her analysis.

Implications

The Supreme Court’s decision underscores the importance of privacy rights in the workplace, particularly within public institutions. By extending Charter protections to school board employees, the Court has reinforced the need for government entities to respect constitutional rights, even in an employment context.

“Public education is inherently a governmental function,” the Court said. “It has a unique constitutional quality, as exemplified by s. 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and by s. 23 of the Charter. Ontario public schools are manifestations of government and, thus, they are subject to the Charter under Eldridge‘s first branch.”

Justice Rowe did state that the analysis “relates specifically to Ontario public school boards.”

“I leave for another day the question of the applicability of the Charter to public school in other provinces, or to the operation of private schools.”

The appeal was dismissed with costs. The court said there was no need to return the matter for further arbitral consideration, “as the issue of reprimand is moot.” The events took place more than a decade ago, noted Justice Karakatsanis and Justice Martin, and there had been “significant proceedings to date.”

“Remitting in these circumstances raises concerns about the efficient use of public resources,” they said.

For more information, see York Region District School Board v. Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, 2024 SCC 22 (CanLII)

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