By Richard Johnson.
We have witnessed several exciting human rights debates and developments in British Columbia in recent years: from prohibitions on sexualized dress codes, to protections for childcare obligations, to the availability of menstrual product receptacles in gendered washrooms.
A central purpose underlying the work of Canadian human rights tribunals and courts is to respond to evolving social needs and values. One current such need is the recognition of “creed” as a protected ground under human rights legislation.
Merriam-Webster defines creed as
“a brief authoritative formula of religious belief” and “a set of fundamental beliefs” also: a guiding principle.
One example of a non-religious creed that has gained significant adherence over past decades is veganism. A person’s observance of veganism – the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet – often reflects their core beliefs about individual responsibility toward animals, the environment and/or the climate (though the reasons for veganism can be as varied as the people identifying as vegan).
Despite the fundamental nature of such a belief system, and the fact that the worldwide vegan population continues to grow, veganism is not currently recognized as a human right worthy of protection. While religious beliefs are explicitly protected under BC’s Human Rights Code (the Code), creed – as a set of non-religious fundamental beliefs or a guiding principle – is not similarly, specifically protected.
However, it is arguable that the framework for such protection exists. Section 13 of the Code clearly prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of “political belief” or “religion” – is a prohibition against violating an individual’s non-political, non-religious, but similarly legitimate and fundamental beliefs, not equally warranted?
To date, we have not seen any significant litigation in BC involving creed as a protected human rights ground. However, tribunals in both Ontario and the UK have recently been called upon to consider veganism as a creed warranting protection under human rights legislation.
In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (the OHRC) approved a “Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed”. The Policy notes that while the Ontario Human Rights Code does not define “creed”, creed may include non-religious belief systems that, like religion, substantially influence a person’s identity, worldview and way of life.
The Policy goes on to state that whether a belief system is a creed under the Ontario Code will depend on whether the belief:
• Is sincerely, freely and deeply held
• Is integrally linked to a person’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment
• Is a particular, comprehensive and overarching system of belief that governs one’s conduct and practices
• Addresses ultimate questions of human existence, including ideas about life, purpose, death, and the existence or non-existence of a creator and/or a higher or different order of existence
• Has some “nexus” or connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief.
These considerations are expected to be put to the test when Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal considers the complaint filed last year by Adam Knauff. Mr. Knauff is an Ontario firefighter who alleges his human rights were violated when his employer (the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) did not provide him with sufficient vegan food while he was fighting forest fires in BC. He also claims that his employer disciplined and suspended him because he attempted to assert his right to accommodation for his “sincerely held ethical belief”. As of the date of this post, the Ontario Tribunal has not issued a decision in this case. You can learn more about Mr. Knauff’s complaint here.
Further afield, a UK employment tribunal judge ruled in early January 2020 that ethical veganism is a “philosophical belief” that warrants legal protections similar to those extended to British workers holding religious beliefs.
Times are changing. While the development of creed as a protected ground is in its infancy, we fully expect that this will become an important aspect of human rights protections in British Columbia in the near future.
As such, we encourage employers to consider and accommodate their employees’ fundamental beliefs and creeds where possible, regardless of whether they fall within a more widely accepted class of religious beliefs. Such an approach will not only help keep employers on the right side of the developing law, it will also ensure that employees feel heard, respected and valued.