Federal-Provincial Conflict – SCC Workers’ Comp Ruling

Photo: Government of Canada

Photo: Government of Canada

A federal-provincial statute conflict is at the heart of a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that discusses which types of conflicts may render a provincial act unconstitutional.

Two fishermen lost at sea were held to be employees for purposes of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act (WHSCA). That means their estate is statute-barred from suing for damages; their only recourse is compensation under the province’s workers’ compensation scheme.

Court held the principle of federal paramountcy does not apply. The constitutional conflict is between federal maritime common law — which provides that a dependant may bring a claim “under circumstances that would have entitled the person, if not deceased, to recover damages” — and a provincial statute that disallows such claims. In all provinces, workers’ compensation schemes supplant the right to sue an employer for negligence.

In the recent decision, the court compares provincial workers’ compensation acts and federal maritime law, finding each distinct in purpose and nature. “The first provides no-fault insurance benefits for workplace-related injury and the second is a statutory tort regime.”

This decision suggests that provincial statutes may affect and overrule federal common law and statutory rights.

“The standard for invalidating provincial legislation on the basis of frustration of federal purpose is high,” the SCC found. “Inconsistency can arise from two different forms of conflict: the operational conflict, when compliance with one statute means a violation of the other statute, and the frustration of federal purpose.”

Both trial and appeal courts had held that the provincial statute was constitutionally invalid in that it impinged upon Parliament’s jurisdiction over navigation and shipping. Section 6(2) of the federal Marine Liability Act (MLA), which allows the estate of a deceased to sue in tort to recover damages, conflicted with the WHSCA sections that bar such suits. The lower courts had found that the federal statute prevailed.

The brothers’ estates commenced action against the designer and builder of the vessel that went down, and the Attorney General of Canada, alleging negligence in the inspection of the vessel by Transport Canada.

At issue for the Supreme Court were: whether the federal power over navigation and shipping made the claims by the brothers’ estates immune from the application of the prohibition against suit in the provincial health and safety act; and whether the right to sue granted by the MLA was paramount to the WHSCA, such that the WHSCA did not apply to deaths at a maritime workplace.

The SCC held that while the WHSCA did encroach on a protected area of federal jurisdiction, it was not serious enough of an encroachment or impairment to render the Act unconstitutional.

Further Reading:

Marine Services International Ltd. v. Ryan Estate, 2013 SCC 44 (CanLII)

Article at Bull Housser

R. v. Toutissani, 2008 ONCJ 139 (CanLII)
A non-licensee sought a motion to allow him to represent a person facing criminal charges. Court found: “In this case the provincial law adds requirements which can be complied with by a person who wishes to appear as agent for a defendant on a federal summary conviction matter.”
– Thanks to Paralegal Sharon Thurman.

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