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The Prime Minister's Image Consultant
Should personal beliefs matter in government hiring practices?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, like Prime Ministers before him, is being criticized for a staffing decision. At first the issue was whether or not a Canadian Prime Minister required an image consultant, who travels with him and is paid for at the taxpayers' expense. When it became apparent that he is not the only world leader with an image consultant, or the only Prime Minister to have had one, and the revelation was made that her salary is covered by the Conservative Party, the criticism turned to commentary on Michelle Muntean's personal beliefs. Ms. Muntean is a self-described psychic.

… how the "personal beliefs" test operates is dependent on whether we work in a federally or provincially regulated industry.

I won't weigh in on whether Mr. Harper needs or benefits from an image consultant, or what staff are appropriate or inappropriate for the Prime Minister. But the question of whether personal beliefs are an appropriate consideration in the government's hiring practices is a significant and noteworthy issue.

Personal belief fits the category of "religion" or "conscience" under Canadian law. In its hiring practices, the Government of Canada is required to adhere to:

The Canadian Bill of Rights which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion [s. 1]
The Canadian Human Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, specifically noting employment practices [s. 3 and s. 7]
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in [s. 15 (1)]

Accordingly, the personal beliefs of a potential or current employee of the Prime Minister's office are not relevant and, in this type of situation, would become an issue if the individual is terminated because of those beliefs.

What is relevant is competency to perform the requirements of the job. I don't personally know what is required in an image consultant—although a few close friends have suggested that having someone else pick out my clothing would not be an entirely bad idea—but whoever hired Ms. Muntean is likely to have checked her resumé and references as would be done in the normal course of hiring an employee.

For those of us who do our hiring outside the realm of government, how the "personal beliefs" test operates is dependent on whether we work in a federally or provincially regulated industry. What is consistent in federal and provincial legislation is that one cannot discriminate in employment based on a person's "religion," "creed" or "personal beliefs" except in circumstances specifically detailed in the relevant human rights legislation. Let me provide a little more information in that regard, specifically for the Evangelical community which I serve.

Charities often think of themselves as regulated federally because Canada Revenue Agency grants charitable registration status. However, charities are actually regulated provincially—the Income Tax Act is federal legislation and the benefits afforded by charitable registration are tax benefits. Provincial human rights codes recognize that there are identifiable instances in which an employer is permitted to discriminate in employment practices.

One instance in which it is legal to discriminate is when it is a legitimate requirement of the position to be held that the employee share the same personal beliefs/religion as the employer. For example, a church might hire someone for a reception position who is required to be able to pray with people and/or share their faith with people thus making it a legitimate requirement that the employee share the same religion as the employer.

Another instance where it is legal to discriminate is where the organization is an identified organization that requires its staff to share the same distinctive as the organization in order to serve others with the same distinctive. For example, a religious organization that serves only members of that particular religious affiliation could legitimately require that employees share the religious affiliation.

For specific application of relevant laws to your situation you will want to check the human rights legislation in your province or territory.

As for the federal government, it would be both inappropriate and illegal to enquire about an applicant's personal religious beliefs unless those beliefs are a legitimate part of the job, for example in the hiring of a military chaplain. Canadians are, however, legitimately entitled to ask about the personal beliefs of a candidate for public office if we consider those beliefs might affect how that candidate might represent us in Parliament, the provincial legislature, municipal council or local school board.

Don Hutchinson is General Legal Counsel for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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