Labour Day – the first Monday in September – is widely recognized in Canada as summer’s swan song.  Some people stretch out their three-day weekend into a four-or five-day weekend, but ultimately the days and weeks after Labour Day are generally about getting things back in gear after sunny and relatively relaxed work days of summer.   School starts.  Businesses pick up.  Days get shorter and colder.  Vacation season dies down.

But some Canadians reserve their vacation time for that particular window of time a couple of weeks after Labour Day, when the country’s calendar heads in the opposite direction and refocuses on getting back to business.  Christian Canadians, or Canadians with cultural connections to traditionally Christian holidays, rarely need to worry about taking off time to participate in their religion or culture.  In British Columbia, statutory holidays (BC Government) overlap with the holidays of Western Christians.

For other Canadians, though, that’s a real concern: how am I going to celebrate fixed, weekday calendar events without compromising my business or employment obligations?  Despite the increasing diversity of Canadian society, that same issue still needs to be acknowledged and respected by employers, even in the educational community: how should educational institutions deal with employees who don’t mind working on Christmas but need to take off days at different times of the year for their own cultural or religious holidays?

The central case on this issue in the educational context is Commission scolaire régionale de Chambly v. Bergevin (CanLII), which involved three Jewish teachers employed by a local school board who took a day off to celebrate Yom Kippur (Wikipedia).  The school board had granted them a leave of absence without pay and the teacher’s union sought reimbursement for that amount.  The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately found for the union, and maintained that the school board had a duty to accommodate the needs of the teachers, short of such accommodation resulting in undue hardship (i.e. being unreasonably costly) for the school board.

The high court determined that the calendar of statutory holidays is discriminatory against non-Western Christian employees:

In my view, the calendar which sets out the work schedule, one of the most important conditions of employment, is discriminatory in its effect.  Teachers who belong to most of the Christian religions do not have to take any days off for religious purposes, since the Christian holy days of Christmas and Good Friday are specifically provided for in the calendar.  Yet, members of the Jewish religion must take a day off work in order to celebrate Yom Kippur.  It thus inevitably follows that the effect of the calendar is different for Jewish teachers.  They, as a result of their religious beliefs, must take a day off work while the majority of their colleagues have their religious holy days recognized as holidays from work.  In the absence of some accommodation by their employer the Jewish teachers must lose a day’s pay to observe their holy day.

Educational institutions should review Chambly and other decisions when drafting policies related to employees to ensure this issue is dealt with sensitively and in advance of any disputes arising.  Outside of the employment and labour context, schools and universities should provide sufficient measures for students of minority cultures and religions to take their holidays without suffering significant hardship.

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