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Substituting Statutory Holidays to Advance Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Workplaces

June 8, 2021

EDI and Ontario’s Statutory Holidays

Ontario has nine public holidays, often known as “statutory holidays”, but have you ever thought about why we observe each of those days and whether those particular holidays make sense in our increasingly diverse workplaces?

Most of us are aware of the religious significance of holidays like Good Friday and Christmas Day but what about the others?

These are Ontario’s current public holidays:

  1. New Year’s Day
  2. Family Day
  3. Good Friday
  4. Victoria Day
  5. Canada Day
  6. Labour Day
  7. Thanksgiving Day
  8. Christmas Day
  9. Boxing Day

While these days are often used for religious observances, extra time off or a chance to enjoy time with families, for some people several of these holidays are at best irrelevant and, at worst, associated with pain and sorrow given their historical meaning. (For background on the connection between colonialism, Victoria Day and Canada Day, I encourage you to read the recent blog post by our EDI intern, Hannah Tarr.)

But there is a way to create days that suit the diverse employee needs. Employers can allow employees to choose days of personal significance in substitution for a statutory holiday. Animikii Indigenous Technology did just that. Their CEO recently changed the company’s public holiday policy to allow employees to honour Indigenous traditions as an act of decolonization.

Substituting Days Off

In most cases, the Ontario Employment Standards Act allows employees to receive public holiday pay while taking a substitute day off. There are exceptions that apply to specific industries, and some employees may be required to work on a public holiday, but there is flexibility for most employees.

A substitute holiday must be scheduled for a day no later than three months after the public holiday for which it was earned, or, with the employee’s written agreement, up to 12 months after the public holiday.

How Do You Implement Flexible Public Holidays?

The best way to implement a substitute day off system is with a policy. We recommend the following:

  • Consider how many days you are prepared to offer as a substitution. For example, do you want to allow substitutions for days like New Year’s Day, Family Day and Thanksgiving that do not have the same cultural or religious significance?
  • Inform employees that they may use substitute days for public holidays. To maintain the spirit of the policy, you may wish to ask employees to choose a substitute day of personal significance, to avoid them be treated as vacation days (e.g., substituting July 2nd for Canada Day to achieve a long weekend).
  • Create a statutory holiday substitution form for employees to submit their requests in advance, preferably at the beginning of the year, to enable certainty in scheduling.
  • Once employees submit their form, those days should generally be considered “locked in”.
  • Let employees know that if they do not request a substitute day off, regular statutory holidays will be the default.

Some employees may still choose to take a regular statutory holiday because the day is meaningful to them, or they may want to be off at the same time as their family or friends. Others may wish to select a different day; one that is based on their culture, faith or other personal reasons.

One advantage of this system is that employees will not have to use vacation days for holidays that are significant to them while being off on days that are not. Many employers are implementing equity, diversity and inclusion measures and allowing flexibility in observing public holidays can be an important part of these measures.