Supreme Court orders female firefighter rehired

The Supreme Court of Canada says a B.C. firefighter was the victim of sexual discrimination when she was fired for not being able to run fast enough.

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the justices ordered Tawney Meiorin be rehired, and given five years worth of back pay.

The ruling means employers must now prove that discriminatory tests are justified.

Some lawyers predict the decision will have an effect on how human rights are interpreted by employers across the country.

It's the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on whether imposing mandatory fitness requirements for a job violates human rights.

The physical exam was not necessary "to identify those forest firefighters who are able to work safely and efficiently," the justices said.

Meiorin, now 33, lost her job in 1994 when she failed to run 2.5 kilometres in less than 11 minutes. She missed the mark by 49.4 seconds.

She had already been a member of a crew fighting forest fires in B.C. for two years when she was fired.

Meiorin passed all the other parts of the physical exam, including a minimum number of situps and pushups.

The defence argued that men have an unfair advantage in such tests because women, on average, have less aerobic capacity.

About 70 per cent of men passed the exam on the first try, compared to only about 35 per cent of the women.

Meiorin also maintained that the fitness exam she failed was not a good measure of her abilities in the field.

"These tests should be related to the actual requirements of fighting fires ... where you have smoke, and heat, and terrain to deal with," she said.

The union supported Meiorin's battle. It said the fitness standards were needlessly high, and excluded women who could fight forest fires well.

An arbitrator agreed, and ordered Meiorin rehired. But a B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the ruling. It said using one test for all applicants does not constitute discrimination.

The case was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in February.