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13 March 2019
Employers should be mindful of a newly recognised form of discrimination that has captured the attention of legislators and the Canadian public: genetic discrimination.
With the launch of companies like 23andMe, genetic testing has become increasingly popular in recent years. Genetic tests may:
While this genetic information can help individuals to make informed decisions about their health and take preventative action, there is some concern that this information may be used by employers to the disadvantage of individuals. Might it be used to refuse to hire someone, deny a promotion or terminate employment?
The federal government was the first to enact legislation in response to such concerns. A bill is now before the Ontario legislature that would prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their genetic characteristics. The courts have also started to weigh in on the issue in the context of the subjective component of discrimination or perceived disability.
In May 2017 the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to prohibit discrimination based on genetic characteristics. Similarly, under the Canada Labour Code, employees cannot be forced to undergo a genetic test or to disclose the results of a genetic test.
On 3 October 2018 Bill 40, Human Rights Code Amendment Act (Genetic Characteristics), 2018 was introduced in the Ontario legislature. The private member's bill passed second reading and was referred to a standing committee of the Legislative Assembly on 18 October 2018. Bill 40 would amend the Ontario Human Rights Code to include genetic characteristics as a prohibited ground of discrimination and to provide that every person has a right to equal treatment without discrimination in employment because of genetic characteristics. It includes the right to equal treatment if a person refuses to undergo a genetic test or disclose the results of a genetic test.
Under Bill 40, 'genetic characteristics' is defined broadly as the "genetic traits of an individual, including traits that may cause or increase the risk to develop a disorder or disease". The bill contains an exemption for insurance contracts, which are permitted to make distinctions, exclusions or preferences on reasonable and genuine grounds because of genetic characteristics.
This is not the first time that Ontario has introduced legislation to prohibit genetic discrimination. Bill 164 would have amended the Human Rights Code to include four new grounds of discrimination, including genetic characteristics. However, it never became law before the previous legislature dissolved. Bill 164 was reintroduced on 26 September 2018 as Bill 35. However, Bill 35 is a private member's bill, not introduced by a member of the majority government; as a result, it is unlikely to become law. While Bill 40 is also a private member's bill, it was introduced by a member of the governing party, the Progressive Conservatives, meaning it may have a greater chance of being enacted.
Even without express prohibitions, human rights laws might already be interpreted to include protection against genetic discrimination under existing grounds of discrimination. This is because many Canadian provinces recognise perceived disability in their human rights statutes. Certain genetic characteristics could be understood as a form of perceived disability.
Human rights tribunals and Canadian courts have also clearly recognised the subjective component of disability. For example, in Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v Montreal (City) (2000 SCC 27), three individuals were either denied employment or dismissed as a result of having been tested for medical conditions that had not actually developed into any concrete physical limitation that impeded their ability to perform their jobs. Two of these individuals had spinal anomalies, while the other had asymptomatic Crohn's disease. The Supreme Court of Canada found that these anomalies could be considered a 'handicap' within the meaning of Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms because of the subjective component of disability. Notably, the court commented that an overly narrow definition of 'handicap' would not serve the purpose of the charter "[g]iven both the rapid advances in biomedical technology, and more specifically in genetics". This decision may provide a precedent for future tribunals considering claims of genetic discrimination.
While it may not yet arise often in the workplace, genetic testing is likely to become increasingly relevant to employers as it becomes more common. There are two main reasons for this:
Employers should be aware of the emerging concept of genetic discrimination.
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