The Danger of Taking Things Literally: Corporation d’Urgences-santé c. Syndicat des employées et employés d’Urgences-santé (CSN), 2015 QCCA 315

As I have previously explained, I think it is wrong to measure administrative interpretations of law by reference to the principles of statutory interpretation. Sure, administrative decision-makers should be required to read statutory provisions intelligently and explain their conclusions in terms of statutory language and objectives, but they should not be required to master these judicially developed concepts or spend their evenings thumbing through Sullivan on the Construction of Statutes. Canadian courts have done much to rid the administrative process of this sort of time-consuming formalism and the access-to-justice barrier it imposes, but they still hold administrators to judicial standards when it comes to statutory interpretation.

A recent example of judicial insistence on the principles of statutory interpretation is Corporation d’Urgences-santé c. Syndicat des employées et employés d’Urgences-santé (CSN), 2015 QCCA 315, though I will say at the outset that the interpretation under review here was perhaps more vulnerable than others to being struck down.

The question at issue was relatively simple: can a pay equity complaint be made against a company relating to a period before its adoption of a pay equity strategy? Two administrative bodies took opposing views: the Commission des relations du travail, the higher of the two in the hierarchy, concluded that the complaint was not admissible.

The important provisions of the Pay Equity Act were, at the relevant time:

10. An employer whose enterprise employs 100 or more employees shall establish, in accordance with this Act, a pay equity plan applicable throughout his enterprise.

37. The adjustments in compensation required to achieve pay equity must be determined or a pay equity plan must be completed within four years of the coming into force of this chapter.

40. The employer shall, after adjustments in compensation have been determined or a pay equity plan has been completed, maintain pay equity in his enterprise.

71. The employer shall make the first adjustments in compensation under a pay equity plan on the date by which the plan must be completed…

The CRT read s. 40 literally. After a pay equity plan has been put in place, the employer has an obligation to “maintain pay equity”. But not before.

Here, however, the employer had not put the plan in place in a timely manner. It was 2009 before the plan was in place. But the obligation was created as of 2001. During quite a long period, the company’s employees were not benefiting from the protections created by the legislation.

Dutil J.A. criticized the CRT for adopting a literalist approach. Nowadays, contextual interpretation is everything: “En somme, il faut conclure que la méthode d’interprétation littérale ne doit pas être utilisée de manière exclusive pour interpréter une disposition législative telle que l’article 40 LÉS, et ce, même en présence d’un texte en apparence clair. Il faut non seulement rechercher le sens courant des termes, mais aussi l’objet, l’esprit de la loi et l’intention du législateur” (at para. 48).

What, then, was the intention of the legislature? Dutil J.A. focused on ss. 37 and 71, which pointed to pay equity being an ongoing obligation. In particular, it would be contrary to the spirit of the law if an employer who was tardy about putting a pay equity plan in place could avoid incurring obligations that a law-abiding employer would shoulder (at para. 51). She also noted that pay equity is a fundamental right in Quebec, protected by s. 19 of the quasi-constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at para. 53):

[55]        L’interprétation littérale…a comme résultat de ne pas favoriser le respect du droit édicté à l’article 19 de la Charte. En effet, une telle interprétation priverait certains employés d’Urgences-santé du droit d’obtenir un traitement ou un salaire égal, de 2001 à 2009, pour un travail équivalent. Elle va à l’encontre du but premier de la LÉS qui est de corriger les écarts salariaux dus à la discrimination systémique subie par les personnes occupant un « emploi à prédominance féminine ».

 After such a thorough contextual analysis, it was little surprise that Dutil J.A. struck down the CRT’s decision as unreasonable. There was only one reasonable interpretation (Dutil J.A.’s) and the CRT had not provided it. Indeed, taking a literal approach to statutory interpretation was unreasonable:

[69]        La CRT ne considère nullement quel est l’objet de la LÉS ni son esprit. Elle ne tient pas compte du contexte global de la loi et des conséquences de son interprétation qui amènent des résultats fort injustes tant pour les employés touchés que pour les employeurs qui se sont conformés à la LÉS à l’intérieur du délai prévu. Par ailleurs, la CRT ne donne pas une interprétation généreuse de cette loi qui confère des avantages et ignore la cohérence qui doit exister entre les dispositions d’une loi. Enfin, elle ne traite pas de la conformité de son interprétation avec la Charte. En somme, son analyse est incomplète et comporte des lacunes importantes (emphasis added).

I have mixed feelings about this conclusion.

On the one hand, the CRT’s literalist approach left out some important considerations: it simply did not address the important points noted by Dutil J.A. My concern with imposing judicial principles of interpretation on administrative decision-makers is that they are incentivized to favour formalism over the pursuit of their statutory objectives. But here, there was no attempt at all to articulate the outcome in terms of statutory objectives. So perhaps this is a case limited to its facts, rightly decided because the CRT’s analysis failed to deal with important issues.

On the other hand, it is yet another example of a Canadian appellate court insisting on the primacy of the principles of statutory interpretation, something that imposes a particular interpretive methodology on administrative decision-makers, a methodology that they might not be well equipped to apply and that may, indeed, intimidate unrepresented individuals that appear before them.

Moreover, this methodology entices reviewing courts to engage in a two-step analysis (as in this case), where the judge first establishes a ‘benchmark’ by engaging in a global, contextual analysis and then measures the administrative interpretation against it. Where a judge does this, however, her appreciation of the administrative decision-maker’s interpretation is liable to be indelibly coloured by her own preferred interpretation. Given that the principles of statutory interpretation are designed to resolve ambiguity and identify the best answers to questions of law, it will be a rare case in which a judge will be able to convince herself to uphold the administrative decision-maker’s contrary interpretation. The struggle for deference will go on!

This content has been updated on March 11, 2015 at 19:04.