Is Veganism a Protected Ground Employers are Required to Accommodate?

Ontario’s Human Rights Code, RSO 1990, c H.19 (the “Code”) places an obligation on employers to accommodate their employees to the extent that such accommodation does not cause them “undue hardship”, on a number of protected grounds enumerated under the Code, including race, ethnic origin, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or age.

While discrimination because of one’s diet is not itself an enumerated ground under the Code, a recent news article suggests that the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario may soon consider whether or not ethical veganism is a protected ground under the broader category of ‘creed’.

The Human Rights Commission characterizes creed as a belief system that:

  • 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; or,
  • has some “nexus” or connection to an organization or community that professes a shared system of belief.

The Commission itself has explicitly refrained from making a determination as to whether or not ethical veganism is a form of creed, stating that:

[I]t is not the OHRC’s role to determine whether or not a certain belief is a creed. Specific facts and context are needed for those kinds of determinations to be made. Ultimately, courts or a Tribunal will make those kinds of decisions. However, our policy provides guidance to those tasked with making that determination, whether it be courts and Tribunals, or employers, service providers, landlords, or others with obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Background

Adam Knauff (“Knauff”), a firefighter based in Ontario with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against his employer for failing to provide him with sufficient vegan dietary options while he was working long hours in Williams Lake, British Columbia in 2017.

Knauff had travelled to Williams Lake to help fight a massive forest fire along with 1,000 other firefighters. He claims that the Ministry was aware of his ethical veganism, a belief system he maintains incorporates a vegan diet into a lifestyle of non-consumption of animal products. Prior to leaving, he had also submitted a dietary form indicating his restrictions. When he arrived at base camp, there were limited options to obtain food as most local businesses were closed due to the fire and the closest stores were hours away. The firefighters were provided with food that was prepared for them, and, over the course of the first week, Knauff claims that the vegan options were either severely limited or non-existent. He raised his concerns with the staff multiple times and claims that on several days he had to go hungry for lack of vegan-friendly sustenance.

Knauff claims that after four days of sustaining himself primarily on nuts and fruit while working 14 to 16-hour days, he was starting to feel ill and mentally groggy. After a week, a barbeque was held for the group and he was told that vegan burgers would be available. At the barbeque, however, he saw that the vegan items were being prepared alongside the meat-based options and that the people preparing the food were handling both items with the same gloves. Concerned about cross-contamination, he reacted angrily, which resulted in a verbal altercation with the chef. His supervisor issued him a warning.

After two more days with very little protein, Knauff became angry with his supervisor, who decided to suspend him for three days without pay for insubordinate and aggressive behaviour. He was also banned from fighting fires outside of Ontario for the remainder of 2017 and all of 2018.

The Complaint

Recently, Knauff filed an official complaint against his employer, stating that:

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry discriminated against me and failed to accommodate my sincerely held ethical beliefs (creed) when it failed to provide me with food that accommodated my personal commitment to ethical veganism, and then disciplined me and suspended me because I attempted to assert my right to accommodation of that sincerely held ethical belief.

In response, the Ministry has argued that, while Knauff’s vegan status is a sincerely held lifestyle choice, it does not meet the legal definition of creed. It has further stated that it did provide accommodation on site for his food restrictions as if it were a health need or part of a recognized creed.

Animal Justice, an advocacy group, has said that it hopes to intervene in the case because veganism in the workplace isn’t isolated to this one situation. They view this as a test case and say that they hope for a clear statement from the Tribunal on whether ethical veganism will be ruled a form of creed under the Code.

It remains to be seen whether or not ethical veganism will be found to be a creed once the Tribunal has had a chance to hear this issue and release a decision. The Commission has already stated that what constitutes a creed may be non-secular, so long as the belief “substantially influence[s] a person’s identity, worldview and way of life”. Employers across the province, particularly those that must provide food and accommodation to employees as part of their employment, will certainly be paying attention to the upcoming decision.

The employment law team at Duncan, Linton LLP works with both employees and employers on employment law matters including Human Rights Code issues. We give timely and practical advice to employees while also helping employers ensure that all legal obligations owed to an employee are met. Please call us at 519-886-3340 or reach us online to talk with a lawyer today.