Legal News

College of Teachers overruled

Supreme Court of Canada headnote of decision:
PerMcLachlin C.J. and Gonthier, Iacobucci, Major, Bastarache, Binnie, Arbour and LeBel JJ.:

The BC College of Teachers (BCCT) had jurisdiction to consider discriminatory practices in dealing with the TWU application. The suitability for entrance into the profession of teaching must take into account all features of the education program at TWU and the power to establish standards provided for in s. 4 of the Teaching Profession Act must be interpreted in light of the general purpose of the statute. Public schools are meant to develop civic virtue and responsible citizenship and to educate in an environment free of bias, prejudice and intolerance. It would not be correct, in this context, to limit the scope of s. 4 to a determination of skills and knowledge. The standard of correctness must be applied to the BCCT’s decision to consider discriminatory practices because it was determinative of jurisdiction and beyond the expertise of the members of the BCCT.

The absence of a privative clause, the expertise of the BCCT, the nature of the decision and the statutory context all favour a correctness standard of review on the issue of whether the BCCT’s decision is justified. While this case deals with the discretion of an administrative body to determine the public interest, the BCCT is not the only government actor entrusted with policy development. Furthermore, its expertise does not qualify it to interpret the scope of human rights nor to reconcile competing rights. The Court of Appeal was wrong in applying a lower standard to the findings of the BCCT with regard to the existence of discriminatory practices and whether any such practices create a perception that the BCCT condones this discrimination or create a risk that graduates of TWU will not provide a discrimination-free environment for all public school students. The existence of discriminatory practices is based on the interpretation of the TWU documents and human rights values and principles. This is a question of law that is concerned with human rights and not essentially educational matters.

At the heart of the appeal is how to reconcile the religious freedoms of individuals wishing to attend TWU with the equality concerns of students in B.C.’s public school system, concerns that may be shared by society generally. While TWU is a private institution that is exempted, in part, from the B.C. human rights legislation and to which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply, the BCCT was entitled to look to these instruments to determine whether it would be in the public interest to allow public school teachers to be trained at TWU. Any potential conflict between religious freedoms and equality rights should be resolved through the proper delineation of the rights and values involved. Properly defining the scope of the rights avoids a conflict in this case. Neither freedom of religion nor the guarantee against discrimination based on sexual orientation is absolute. The proper place to draw the line is generally between belief and conduct. The freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them. Absent concrete evidence that training teachers at TWU fosters discrimination in the public schools of B.C., the freedom of individuals to adhere to certain religious beliefs while at TWU should be respected. Acting on those beliefs, however, is a different matter. If a teacher in the public school system engages in discriminatory conduct, that teacher can be subject to disciplinary proceedings before the BCCT. In this way, the scope of the freedom of religion and equality rights that have come into conflict can be circumscribed and thereby reconciled.

Here, by not taking into account the impact of its decision on the right to freedom of religion of the members of TWU, the BCCT did not weigh the various rights involved in its assessment of the alleged discriminatory practices of TWU. Consideration of human rights values in the present circumstances encompasses consideration of the place of private institutions in our society and the reconciling of competing rights and values. Freedom of religion, conscience and association coexist with the right to be free of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Even though the requirement that students and faculty adopt the Community Standards creates differential treatment since it would probably prevent homosexual students and faculty from applying, one must consider the true nature of the undertaking and the context in which this occurs. Many Canadian universities have traditions of religious affiliations. Religious public education rights are enshrined in s. 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Moreover, a religious institution is not considered to breach B.C. human rights legislation where it prefers adherents of its religious constituency. It cannot be reasonably concluded that private institutions are protected but that their graduates are de facto considered unworthy of fully participating in public activities. While homosexuals may be discouraged from attending TWU, a private institution based on particular religious beliefs, they will not be prevented from becoming teachers. Clearly, the restriction on freedom of religion must be justified by evidence that the exercise of this freedom of religion will, in the circumstances of this case, have a detrimental impact on the public school system. There is nothing in the TWU Community Standards, which are limited to prescribing conduct of members while at TWU, that indicates that graduates of TWU will not treat homosexuals fairly and respectfully. The evidence to date is that graduates from the joint TWU-SFU teacher education program have become competent public school teachers, and there is no evidence before this Court of discriminatory conduct. In addition, there is no basis for the inference that the fifth year of the TWU program conducted under the aegis of SFU corrected any attitudes which were the subject of the BCCT’s concerns. On the evidence, the participation of SFU had nothing to do with the apprehended intolerance from its inception to the present. Rather, the cooperation was intended to support a small faculty in its start-up stage.

The order of mandamus was justified because the exercise of discretion by the BCCT was fettered by s. 4 of the Act and because the only actual reason for denial of certification was the consideration of discriminatory practices. In considering the religious precepts of TWU instead of the actual impact of these beliefs on the public school environment, the BCCT acted on the basis of irrelevant considerations. It therefore acted unfairly.