by Jeffrey Wang
On October 16th, 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada released the landmark decision of Fraser v Canada, clarifying how adverse effect discrimination fits into the s. 15 framework. Adverse effect discrimination can be defined as when a facially neutral law has a disproportionate impact on members of a group. This is distinct from direct discrimination where a law makes a facial distinction among groups based on an enumerated or analogous characteristic.
Fraser is a significant development in Charter jurisprudence since the Court has rarely allowed adverse effect discrimination claims. Although the Court has repeatedly proclaimed that s. 15 does cover both types of discrimination and has recognized numerous adverse effect discrimination cases under human rights codes, the SCC has only affirmed one case of adverse effect discrimination under s. 15 prior to Fraser. In Eldridge v British Columbia, the Court found that a hospital that did not provide sign-language interpreters discriminated against people with hearing loss, even though the lack of sign-language interpreters applied neutrally to both hearing and non-hearing individuals. Other adverse effect discrimination cases have come across the Court but have all been rejected for a variety of reasons.
The Eldridge case is a stark contrast from Fraser’s complex fact-scenario. In Fraser, three female RCMP officers challenged a policy that reduced pension benefits for officers who took part in a job-sharing program. This job-sharing program was created so that RCMP employees did not have to take unpaid leaves of absence in order to balance childcare responsibilities. However, officers taking such a leave would not see reduced pension benefits unlike those participating in job-sharing. The evidence showed that a vast majority of the participants in the job-sharing program were women that balanced childcare with work. The appellants thus argued that the policy reducing pension benefits for job-sharers discriminated against women.
Writing for the majority of the Court, Abella J agreed with the appellants and clarified the law on adverse effect discrimination. She asserted that adverse effect discrimination claims can fall within the existing s. 15 test. Under step one, claimants must show that a law creates a distinction based on an enumerated or analogous ground. To satisfy this step in adverse effect discrimination claims, Abella J posited that claimants must prove that the impugned law has a disproportionate impact on members of a protected group. She suggested that this can be established “if members of protected groups are denied benefits or forced to take on burdens more frequently than others” and Courts should specifically assess the result of the law and the social situation of the claimant group. Abella J further notes that there is no need to prove that all members of the claimant group are identically affected, that the law is responsible for the social situation of the claimant group, the law’s discriminatory intention, or any element of causation. There is also no “universal measure for what level of statistical disparity is necessary to demonstrate that there is a disproportionate impact.”
In the second step of the s. 15 test, the claimants must prove that the law perpetuates or reinforces disadvantage. Abella J cautioned that under adverse impact discrimination cases, the Court should not assess the objectives of the law at this stage but should rather leave this analysis to s. 1.
Applying this test to the case, Abella J found that the RCMP pension scheme in relation to job-sharers disproportionately impacted women due to their childcare responsibilities and that this perpetuated the economic disadvantage of women. In addition, she found that this law was not justified under s.1 since there was no pressing objective in denying the pension benefits for job-sharers. Therefore, the majority of the Court struck down the law.
Implications for Future Cases
The majority’s decision in Fraser is a welcome development in the fight for substantive equality. Adverse effect discrimination claims have long been recognized in human rights code cases, and the Fraser decision finally brings this uncontroversial understanding of equality into s. 15 jurisprudence with a paradigmatic adverse impact fact-scenario.
However, while the overall conclusion in Fraser undoubtedly moves the law in a positive direction, there are issues with Abella J’s reasoning. In our current heterogenous society, it is likely that most laws have a disproportionate effect on one group of people. For example, many human rights code cases have explored whether the lack of funding for prostate cancer testing is discriminatory against men; whether a municipal policy limiting the number of garbage bags per family picked up by waste disposal discriminates against larger families; and whether the lack of coroner’s inquests for migrant workers’ deaths discriminates on the basis of race. Under the Fraser majority, many of these difficult cases would pass the s. 15 test for adverse effect discrimination. All that is required under step one of the test is a law’s disproportionate impact without proof of intention, causation, or statistical significance and step two merely requires historical disadvantage.
This is the problem with the Fraser decision – it does not precisely define the boundaries of adverse effect discrimination. Under direct discrimination, the requirement that a law creates a distinction based on a protected ground is meaningful, since there are many laws that do not facially distinguish between groups. However, the Fraser majority decision could render this first step of the s. 15 test meaningless by simply allowing evidence of a law’s disproportionate effect which is rife in society. Additionally, with Abella J’s comment that the objectives of the law should not be analyzed under the second step of the s. 15 test, historical advantage would similarly be easy to establish by looking to social science evidence. In effect, the Fraser majority has watered down the s. 15 analysis and pushed the bulk of the legal reasoning to s. 1. But if everything violates s. 15, nothing violates s. 15. This cannot be the state of our equality jurisprudence. S. 15 must include meaningful internal limits that filter out laws that incidentally or reasonably have disproportionate impacts on one group without being discriminatory. Otherwise, what’s the point of s. 15 at all?
Jeffrey Wang is a 3L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, and a former Asper Centre Clinic student.
 Eldridge v British Columbia (Attorney General),  3 SCR 624.
 Fraser v Canada (Attorney General), 2020 SCC 28 at para 52 [Fraser].
 Fraser at para 55.
 Fraser at paras 69-72.
 Fraser at para 59.
 Armstrong v British Columbia (Ministry of Health), 2010 BCCA 56.
 Harrington v Hamilton (City), 2010 HRTO 2395.
 Peart v Ontario (Community Safety and Correctional Services), 2014 HRO 611.