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Des services publics toujours essentiels au Québec ?

Des services publics toujours essentiels au Québec ?

Laurence Léa Fontaine

Volume : 63-4 (2008)


Are Public Services Still Essential in Quebec?

In the event of a legal strike affecting the provision of some public services and the public and parapublic sectors, the parties in the dispute must ensure that the activity is partly maintained due to its critical nature. In other words, the legislator sometimes compels them to provide essential services.

This notion exists at both the supra-state and national levels. However, there is no universal legal definition. It is interpreted more or less broadly, depending on the meaning of the concept in use in a particular legal system. In Quebec, the notion of essential services has been constructed over the years. Its history is long and marked by the evolving labour relations in the area of public services and the public and parapublic sectors. It first appeared in the law in 1965 and has continued to evolve ever since: it has become more precise, more refined, but has also expanded. Two important events have marked the history of this notion: the Martin-Bouchard Commission (1978) and the creation of the Conseil des services essentiels (essential services council) (1982).

The implementation of essential services gives rise to issues of a political, economic or legal nature. A fundamental legal issue relates to the methods used to define these services. The law stipulates the use of a single criterion to determine essential services, that is, “public health or public safety.” According to the International Labour Organization and the Quebec legislator, essential services are those which when interrupted would endanger the safety or health of a person, in the entire population or in a segment of a population.

The Council is the Quebec organization responsible for ensuring protection of the population’s health and safety in the event of a strike. Under this mission, the only relevant criterion it can use is the impact of the provision or non-provision of services on the health and safety of the public. However, the Council can use various subcriteria to determine in a concrete way the essential nature of services, involving, for example, the duration of the strike, the time of year in which the strike takes place, or the characteristics of the services provided. The inconvenience caused by a strike is considered to be normal. Thus, subject to special obligations, the inconvenience, impracticability or discomfort generated by a strike, and its economic impact do not in any way constitute relevant factors in determining the sufficiency of essential services.

The Quebec legislation is particularly consistent in this matter. On the one hand, one single definitional criterion is used throughout the process of implementing essential services: from when agreements are worked out between the parties to when they are applied and subsequently controlled. On the other hand, the sole parameter constituted by public health or safety is imposed on very different environments: the health and social services sector, the provision of public services and the civil service. More specifically, it constitutes the basic definitional instrument of the notion of essential services which is adjusted based on the specific characteristics of each “sector.”

The Council’s case law effectively clarifies the idea of an activity’s essential nature. Although, for a long time, public health or safety has been the sole criterion that can be applied and is applied, recent case law reveals several phenomena which tend to increase the number of services maintained in the event of a strike in the public services and the public and parapublic sectors.

First, the definitional criterion is interpreted broadly. The examination of case law shows that a greater number of services are today considered to be essential. The disputes in the transportation sector are an apt illustration of this finding. Whereas for about 20 years, the way essential services were defined in public transport involved providing service during the peak hours of the week, they now include bus service during the week-end.

Second, a number of provisions in the LabourCode related to institutions in the health network are applied beyond the legal requirements. Thus, two trends have emerged: the voluntary application of percentages of employees to be maintained at work that are higher than those set out by law (section 111.10 LC); and the conventional extension of the scope of application of the law by organizations not specified by the legislator that voluntarily apply the rules imposed on institutions in the health network. The application of the LabourCode beyond the legal requirements can be explained in part by the evolving methods used by the state in the area of health management.

Third, new criteria have appeared because of the extension of the Council’s field of jurisdiction. Current practices in the public service show that criteria other than public health or safety are being used. In particular, the parties are using the following criteria: public health or safety, the independence of the judiciary, parliamentary privilege and contingent loss of rights or the fact that university training is now included among the essential services to which anyone is entitled.

The appearance of these new criteria is acceptable insofar as it leads to the consideration of the specific characteristics pertaining to each sector that has recently come under the Council’s jurisdiction.