by Maria Ikonen in Gatineau, Quebec

Settlement workers seeking opportunities to upgrade their knowledge and exchange ideas about tackling the challenges faced by refugees, will be given the opportunity through a one-of-a-kind course offered at York University.

“Refugees and Forced Migration” is a one-week intensive summer course being offered from May 9 to 13, 2016 at York University in Toronto. Presentations will cover refugee and forced migration issues such as the law and legal context, diversity and resettlement in Canada and health care.

Johanna Reynolds, summer course director at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, says that participants come globally from countries such as Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, Germany and South Africa.

According to Dr. Christina Clark-Kazak, acting director of the Centre for Refugee Studies, the course will offer “Canadian context, but also international such as United States and Europe. This enriches the discussion.” 

Participants will have a chance to visit local resettlement agencies and to speak with the people working on the frontlines. “It is rare to be in a room with people who have expertise with the refugee forged immigration issues,” says Reynolds.

Clark-Kazak, who herself participated in the course 12 years ago, hopes that the program will provide an opportunity for academics and people working with refugees to talk about the newest trends and what is currently happening.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“This is a valuable opportunity to share information globally."[/quote]

According to Reynolds, anyone who is passionate about the course topics would find this week very useful. “This is a valuable opportunity to share information globally, and to take it back to the workplace with the tasks such as policy making and advocacy.”

Reynolds says that the participants are offered a deeper understanding refugee and forced migration issues, which extend beyond what the media is covering.

“Participants see that refugee issues aren’t only with Syrians, but there are other issues too. [The] course brings up the complexity of the refugee and forced migration politics.”

Global perspective on resettlement and refugees

According to Clark-Kazak, the main demand for the course arose from outside of the university. People doing related work wanted to attend the centre’s courses, but couldn’t for different reasons.

“We saw the need and market in North America and Canada,” says Clark-Kazak.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I feel it is important for learners to have a sense of how health intersects with refugee migration.”[/quote]

Reynolds points out that networking opportunities involve making linkages with faculty members from the Centre for Refugee Studies.

Some of the expert presenters will include Michael Casasola, a resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ottawa, François Crépeau, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and Director of McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and Dr. Meb Rashid, physician and co-founder of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the medical director of Crossroad’s Clinic.

“I feel it is important for learners to have a sense of how health intersects with refugee migration,” explains Rashid. “Although settlement issues such as housing and employment are often the greatest determinant of the health of newly arrived refugees, poor health often negatively affects settlement.”

He continues, “Those that struggle with medical problems often have challenges with employment, language acquisition, housing, etc. As such, it is important to inject health care into the discussion around refugee migration.”

Participation in the course in May requires registration, but a public lecture will be hosted as a part of the week on May 10.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Refugee issues, as you know, could not be more salient than they are at present."[/quote]

The lecture will be presented by Dr. Jacqueline Bhabha, director of research at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“York University is known for the excellent work it has done on migration and refugee related issues for many years, so I was delighted to be invited to contribute to this worthwhile course,” Bhabha says. “Refugee issues, as you know, could not be more salient than they are at present, and the opportunity to engage students in key and challenging issues is more than usually welcome.”

Unique possibilities

Organizing a summer course doesn’t happen without challenges. As an example, Reynolds says that prospective participants have had issues with obtaining visas.

However, the organizers say the summer course is very much worth the effort of attending. Clark-Kazak mentions that the course can give busy policy makers and practitioners time to reflect.

“[The] course is a unique possibility for direct discussions after the presentations. It is a course that can offer a platform to come up with solutions to the refugee and forced immigration issues,” adds Reynolds.

“Every presenter and participant brings [a] different point of view and this course can mobilize participants to collaborate as project partners.”

The writer of this article was mentored by Leah Bjornson, a Vancouver-based journalist and New Canadian Media’s (NCM) Special Projects Editor through the NCM Mentoring Program.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Education
Wednesday, 15 July 2015 16:04

Diaspora Sees Return of Hope Over Iran Deal

by Aziza Hirsi in Toronto

After months of intense negotiations, Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations (the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom), plus Germany, struck a deal.

The six countries agreed to lift sanctions on Iran earlier this week on the condition that the country’s nuclear program was to be regulated to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.

The accord not only signals the beginning of the end to the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Iranian regime, but also for many Iranian-Canadians it marks the beginning of restoration of ties between their homeland and the West.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]In a survey of just over 200 Iranians living across Canada, the [Iranian Canadian Congress] found that 80 per cent viewed the agreement favourably and felt it would benefit them.[/quote]

“Many Iranian-Canadians feel an agreement is the best opportunity to avoid a devastating war,” announced Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, president of the Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC), in a statement released Tuesday. “Also, many of those in favour of a nuclear agreement believe a negotiated deal will lift the sanctions on Iran, which will improve economic well being of the Iranian people.”

In a survey of just over 200 Iranians living across Canada, the ICC found that 80 per cent viewed the agreement favourably and felt it would benefit them.

Saeed Rahnema, a professor of political science and public policy at York University, agrees the deal will be positive for the region.

“If there was no deal, there would have been more sanctions and the Iranian regime would have resorted to other means,” says Rahnema. This would have created more problems for the U.S. and its allies, eventually leading to another war in the region, he adds.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Some believe that a nuclear agreement will not have any impact on the human rights condition in Iran or will result in a strengthened Islamic Republic of Iran becoming even less considerate of people’s rights.” - Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, Iranian Canadian Congress[/quote]

The ICC and others continue to express doubts, however, over the impact the nuclear deal will have on efforts to improve human rights in Iran.

“Some believe that a nuclear agreement will not have any impact on the human rights condition in Iran or will result in a strengthened Islamic Republic of Iran becoming even less considerate of people’s rights,” Kahnemuyipour adds. “Others believe that the economic benefits will lead to a strengthening of the middle class – the back bone of any progressive change – ultimately leading to an improvement in individual freedoms and human rights in the country.”

Sayeh Hassan, an Iranian-Canadian lawyer and blogger from Toronto, criticizes what she calls a U.S. agreement with an ‘Islamic dictatorship’. In one tweet, she writes: “#Iran will continue public execution, torture of political dissidents and oppression of religious minorities #IranDealVienna Successful Deal.”

Rahnema agrees.

“A major weakness of the deal is that it has no provision preventing the Iranian regime from its continuous abuse of human rights against Iranians,” he contends. “Obviously the U.S. government, and the Troika (a three-part commission comprised of the European Central Bank, European Commission and the International Monetary Fund) couldn’t care less about human rights in Iran, and Iranian opposition outside the country was incapable of demanding this.”

Canada-Iran relations at a stalemate

For some Iranian-Canadians, the punitive sanctions on Iran have significantly restricted their connection to family members back home.

Arash Abadpour, a research scientist and blogger based in Kitchener, Ont., finds that the lack of political relations between Canada and Iran has been rather detrimental for the Iranian-Canadian community. “Iran doesn’t have an embassy and as an Iranian-Canadian that hurts me because I want to be able to participate in the elections and I cannot.”

Similarly, Reza Ashkevari, a realtor in the Greater Toronto Area, believes that the economic impact on Iranians, including Iranian-Canadians has been dire. “My parents have property in Iran and collect retirement income from it,” says Ashkevari, “but because the value of the Iranian currency is dropping drastically, my parents are becoming poorer and poorer.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Canada’s position and policies on Iran are very much influenced by its close relationship with Israel. So its position will be different from its American and European allies, but will eventually change.” - Saeed Rahnema, York University professor[/quote]

The lack of positive relations between the two countries can also negatively impact Iranian-Canadian families. “One of my sisters is living in Iran and she applied for a visa for herself and her family,” explains Ashkevari. “One of the effects is that I haven’t seen my sister in 15 years.”

Canada-Iran relations continue to be at a stalemate. A statement released Tuesday by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said: “[Canada] will continue to judge Iran by its actions not its words,” and that the federal government will examine the agreement carefully before making any policy changes. It’s a view echoed by Israel, a close ally of the current Canadian administration.

“Canada’s position and policies on Iran are very much influenced by its close relationship with Israel,” Rahnema says. “So its position will be different from its American and European allies, but will eventually change.”

‘Moon landing’ moment

On Twitter the #IranDeal is inundated with tweets praising the agreement as “historic” and an example of diplomacy succeeding over armed conflict.

The Economist magazine tweeted that while the Iran deal was “not perfect, [it] appears much better than any plausible alternatives.”

One Iranian student, Nima, tweeted, “I won’t forget today. This is our generation’s “moon landing” moment.” And an Iranian based in Tehran, Milad Mansoori, tweeted, “We will come back to our golden ages… Say Hello to world… I am Iranian. Thanks @JZarif @JohnKerry #IranDeal #IranWinsPeace.”

Abadpour confirms that the response on Facebook and Twitter from Iranians has been overwhelmingly positive.

“After the Green Movement (the political movement that arose after the 2009 Iranian presidential election) you could definitely see a lot of pessimistic views that nothing is going to happen and there is no hope. It was just going to be a disaster all around,” he explains. “But now with this we can definitely see some hope coming back.”

Rahnema is also cautiously optimistic. “It is hard to anticipate what will happen after 10 years,” he says, “but I think there will be changes in Iran for the better.”

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Top Stories
Thursday, 01 January 2015 05:00

Bilingualism: A Canadian Advantage

by Corinne Cécilia

Bilingualism is arguably what sets Canada apart from the rest of North America – it has historically been the strength of our nation. However, of late, there is some cause for concern. While the demand for second language skills is growing both locally and globally, the number of bilingual people in Canada is on the decline. There are many causes for this slow down, in particular challenges within the education system, but research shows there are also several promising solutions that could help reverse the trend. For starters: newcomers.

 Not only do immigrants tend to support bilingualism as an integral part of the Canadian identity, many also wish to learn French. According to Voices of New Canadians: Factsheet for Educators, part of a study published by the Canadian Parents for French, 60 per cent of Allophone parents feel that learning both of Canada’s official languages would benefit their children. Furthermore, Statistics Canada reports that “in many cases, immigrants who could speak more than one language reported knowledge of English or French, in tandem with a non-official language: 61.2 per cent were able to converse in English or French and one or more non-official language(s).”

It is not surprising, then, that young immigrants are well represented in post-secondary institutions that bet on linguistic diversity such as York University, which in 2012, opened Canada’s first Centre of Excellence for French-language and Bilingual Post-secondary Education based out of Glendon College. Thirty per cent of the college’s students are Francophones hailing from Canada, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and beyond; graduates are expected to develop a demonstrated proficiency in two or more languages. This groundbreaking landmark is evidence of the economic and social value of multilingualism, the challenges of a global world and the high level of academic achievement concomitant with reaching literacy in multiple languages. Graduates of the liberal arts — the social sciences and humanities — are in high demand for jobs in government, business, non-governmental organizations and more, in Canada and internationally,” reports the school’s website.

It is clear that York is a trendsetter in the bilingualism arena, and it is vital that others catch up.

Second language skills in the workforce

Dr. Yves Lostanlen, manager of Siradel North America, ahigh-tech firm providing geolocalized data and advanced software to manage and deploy city-wide information and communications technology infrastructure (in particular wireless) that services both the private and public sectors, says all of his staff members in Canada are from different nationalities and cultures and speak three or more languages; in fact, almost all speak at least French and English. Inevitably, English is the common language when discussing technical and business issues, however, work is “a social universe,” explains Dr. Lostanlen, who is also an adjunct professor in the communication group at the University of Toronto.

“In order to create social connections,” he says, “understanding cultures, languages and traditions is not only fascinating, it also plays an essential role in increasing productivity. Promoting French as well as other major languages is certainly desirable, even indispensable to make interpersonal communication and business more effective.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]As Canada diversifies its trading partners, entering into free trade agreements with the European Union and other nations, the general population mastering two or more languages is more relevant than ever.[/quote]

Canadian organizations doing business with government agencies, or subsidiaries of multinational companies all need staff that can speak a second or third language. “Thales is a global business and we are built around recruiting internationally, especially in the transportation sector of [the company],” says Michelle Forbrigger, Vice President of Human Resources & Communications for Thales Canada Inc., a global technology leader in the defence and security, aerospace and transport markets. “The skills we have difficulties finding are signalling designers and system safety engineers. We also need bilingual staff in certain areas such as human resources and communications. We can arrange interviews in French and English, and other languages such as Mandarin.

What’s true for business organizations is true for our nation. As Canada diversifies its trading partners, entering into free trade agreements with the European Union and other nations, the general population mastering two or more languages is more relevant than ever. As the International Federation of Language Teacher Associations puts it: “There is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in attaining quality education for all and strengthening cooperation, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.” 

Such evolution creates excitement, and has led many to wonder: How well do school programs prepare students to master French as a second language? If we are serious about the benefits of bilingualism and the need for students to prepare for today’s global economy, are our language programs adequate and sufficient?

Bilingualism inside post-secondary institutions

In his essay “Bilingualism: A Canadian Challenge”, Dr. Bernard J. Shapiro, a Professor of Education and Principal Emeritus of McGill University, suggests the main issue lies at the post-secondary level. “Canada’s second official language is more widely taught in our elementary and secondary schools than was previously the case, and immersion programs in the second official language have been a very welcome development. Canada’s colleges and universities are, however, a complete failure in this area. Not only have they not adjusted their curricular offerings to take advantage of the increased bilingualism of their entering students, it has also not seemed to occur to them the great national service they could perform by insisting on (or at least encouraging) bilingualism as a standard of a "Canadian" graduation.” 

Incidentally, critics of Canada’s official language policy can’t be ignored. Sceptics have been questioning the costs and failure of what some call ‘enforced national bilingualism’, pointing to the fact that “real bilingualism in this country is quite geographically isolated” as Stephen Harper puts it in his opinion piece published in The Toronto Sun on July 15, 2011. And, however unpopular this observation may be, it’s not unusual to hear Canadian individuals and businesses perceive Quebec’s Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) to be oppressive.

Opening to the world

Surely there is no single, best way to address such a complex challenge as the decline in bilingualism. But there is a wealth of public and private initiatives to get inspired by, and build upon, as the nation aims to develop French language skills among Canadian learners.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Learners need to practice in real-life settings, and experience French as a Second Language (FSL) beyond the class and homework – from home stays to school exchange programs.[/quote]

Experts agree that second-language exposure plays a key role in the retention of bilingualism. French immersion programs are essential, but overall they don’t seem to produce fluently bilingual graduates. Learners need to practice in real-life settings, and experience French as a Second Language (FSL) beyond the class and homework – from home stays to school exchange programs, and from summer camps to trips to France organized by Canadian Parents for French – thus creating abundant opportunities to embrace the French culture as an exciting global community to be part of.

Learning new languages thoroughly requires efforts that can only be sustained by a strong interest, a true commitment that no official policy can artificially create, nor hinder. Personal motivation is paramount to success. Correct writing is admittedly the biggest challenge when learning French. Not only should educators spot learners who are particularly talented in that area and support them, but also collectively, they must encourage and reward learners who work hard at improving their writing skills. Scholarships and awards, such as the national essay contest created by French for the Future, are extremely important tools.

Canadian businesses know the importance of incentives. “No one can deny it; mastering both official languages is important career-wise,” says Elaine Pichette, a human resources business partner with Thales in Montreal. “It is a competitive advantage, but it needs to be nurtured.” So when employees express the wish to improve their language skills, the company supports them.

Raising awareness about bilingual career opportunities is equally important. According to an independent report released by Colleges Ontario in 2014, 85.9 per cent of Collège Boréal’s students find employment after graduating – ranking higher than the provincial average graduate employment rate of 83.4 per cent. “Our graduates are fully bilingual,” says Pierre Riopel, President of Collège Boréal. “Nowadays, it’s an added value that they can sell. It’s a competitive advantage in terms of customer service. The fact that Francophone colleges exist gives legitimacy to multilingualism.”

Discords over Canada’s official language policies (the Official Languages Act in particular) have fuelled the ‘two solitudes’ for too long. Isn’t it time we bury the hatchet, move beyond the past and stop making excuses? It is time to change the subject and embrace a new-century ideal of multilingual literacy.

Corinne Cécilia is the Managing Editor of Maison & Demeure, the sister publication of House & Home. Corinne is passionate about publishing and has worked as a researcher, columnist, writer and editor with Canadian and international magazines and media outlets. An adept of foreign languages and lifelong learning, she was the French editor of Education Canada magazine from 2007 to 2011. Corinne holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 26 August 2014 22:48

No Hierarchy of Human Rights

by Thamina Jaferi (@ThaminaJaferi) in Toronto

An alarming idea has recently been circulating in human resources circles in Canada: when it comes to competing human rights, maybe there should be a "hierarchy of rights," with the rights of some groups trumping the rights of other groups. 

It is distressing to see that religious accommodation requests made to York University and to the Canadian Border Services Agency have been sensationalized in the media in a way that has influenced people to conclude that religious accommodation has gone too far, and that gender and sexual orientation rights are at risk. I would like to point out that this type of fear mongering does not help organizations and individuals appreciate the careful consideration they must give to requests for accommodation. My intent is not to debate whether the decisions in those cases were right, but rather to place much-needed emphasis on the appropriate legal framework that must be applied to situations in which the rights and freedoms of one Canadian might compete with the rights and freedoms of another.

Competing rights

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), competing human rights “involve situations where parties to a dispute claim that the enjoyment of an individual or group’s human rights and freedoms, as protected by law, would interfere with another’s rights and freedoms.”

Examples of competing rights situations given by the OHRC include:

-          A Code right versus a Code right (“Code” referring to the Human Rights Code or human rights legislation of any province or territory)

-          A Code right versus a Code legal defence

-          A Code right versus another legislated right

-          A Code right versus a Charter right

-          A Code right versus a common law right

-          An international treaty right versus a Code/Charter defence

-          A Charter right versus another Charter right

Looking at the statistics 

It is clear that creed (see definition via link) is still a source of many human rights complaints, especially in employment. Statistics from the OHRC’s 2013 Human rights and creed research and consultation report shows that in 2011-12, a little over 42% of the 186 religion-based applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) cited creed accommodation. Also, about 73% of all 2011-2012 HRTO applications in the context of employment cited creed.

Some critics claim that religious rights are being given more importance than other rights. Arguments that organizations are going "above and beyond" to accommodate religion-based requests are misleading and unsubstantiated. Additionally, as noted by the OHRC in the same report, these statistics do not account for the “under-reporting [and] mis-reporting [of creed discrimination complaints], and the unknown outcome of applications alleging discrimination.” Thus, religious accommodation requests cannot be arbitrarily dismissed on the basis that organizations are already doing a satisfactory job of addressing those requests.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Arguments that organizations are going "above and beyond" to accommodate religion-based requests are misleading and unsubstantiated.[/quote]

Prioritization of rights

Other critics use the argument that because religious identities have been “chosen” as opposed to other identities that are not chosen, this justifies giving them second-class status when dealing with situations in which rights compete. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and human rights laws do not distinguish between characteristics that are “chosen” and those that are not. The fact that someone has chosen their religion does not mean that they do not deserve equal human rights protection as someone who has not chosen to be a woman or of a different sexual orientation.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and human rights laws do not distinguish between characteristics that are “chosen” and those that are not.[/quote]

Furthermore, no matter how unpopular the group, human rights protections are to be applied equally to all groups that have valid human rights claims. Laura Stemp-Morlock, a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo, astutely commented in an article on competing rights that institutions and organizations “must also ensure that religious people – just like women, people with disabilities, racial or sexual minorities, etc. – may access ... services with their identities intact.” To quote the former chief commissioner of the OHRC and lawyer Raj Anand, “As a general proposition, sensitive and difficult issues of minority rights are not best resolved by polling or public outcries. Careful and balanced analysis of the competing positions is the better alternative.”

Limitations on accommodation

It is highly recommended that organizations, employers, human resource managers and anyone responsible for workplace accommodation read and understand the OHRC Policy on competing human rights. They are encouraged to pay particular attention to the section on the analysis for addressing competing human rights situations.

The OHRC has clearly laid out the key legal principles that govern the organizational analysis of competing rights:

1.       No rights are absolute

2.       There is no hierarchy of rights

3.       Rights may not extend as far as claimed

4.       The full context, facts and constitutional values at stake must be considered

5.       Must look at extent of interference (only actual burdens on rights trigger conflicts)

6.       The core of a right is more protected than its periphery

7.       Aim to respect the importance of both sets of rights

8.       Statutory defences may restrict rights of one group and give rights to another.

For those who fear religious accommodation requests may overreach the limits of “reasonable” accommodation, it is important to note that the OHRC framework of analysis has built-in restrictions in order to prevent this outcome.  “No hierarchy of rights” means exactly that: religious rights would not automatically trump other protected rights or freedoms, nor would other protected rights and freedoms automatically trump religious rights. When an organization receives a request for accommodation it is legally obligated to review the request, undertake the appropriate analysis, and document that they have carried out this analysis. This analysis also allows organizations to factor in any costs, and health and safety risks which may constitute “undue hardship” to accommodation. An organization is in a position to make the final accommodation decision only after this comprehensive analysis is carried out.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][R]eligious rights would not automatically trump other protected rights or freedoms[/quote]

Making a decision to deny an accommodation request based on personal opinions, no matter how strongly held, or public opinion can not only tarnish an organization's reputation, but can also expose the organization to a human rights complaint. Organizations should be more cautious and ensure that their approach to accommodation complies with the OHRC policy on competing rights. Additionally, they should not reject an accommodation request at first glance just because it seems to conflict with the rights and freedoms of others.

Contrary to the popular belief that some organizations have committed “blunders” with their accommodation requests, the most appropriate judges of whether that is in fact the case are the human rights tribunals who regularly see competing rights cases, and have the training and expertise to know whether or not an organization has met its duty to accommodate.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that resolving competing rights claims is not about “I win, you lose”. If the appropriate analysis is carried out in a conscientious way, it can result in a balanced solution which respects the rights of all parties. 

Thamina Jaferi, B.A., J.D., is an Associate with Turner Consulting Group with expertise in human rights and workplace discrimination and harassment prevention. You can read Thamina's original blog article here. 

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 29 January 2014 21:15

It’s not about sex — it’s about the law

by Albertos Polizogopoulos

There has been much talk about York University’s decision to accommodate the religion-based request of a male online student to not engage in group meeting work with female students. Most of the “news” pieces I’ve seen call the decision, and the student who made the request, sexist, misogynistic, and archaic. To accommodate this student, we’re told, would be a violation of women’s rights. Even Canada’s Minister of Justice spoke out against the decision, saying that Canada did not send troops to Afghanistan to fight for women’s rights only to have them degraded here.

All of these characterizations are, in my opinion, wrong. Here’s why. There is no question of, nor threat to women’s equality rights in the accommodation request of an online university student.

This story is being driven by a thorough misunderstanding of Canadian law and human rights.

There are no competing rights to be balanced in a case where granting one student’s request does not infringe on the rights of others. In Ontario, every person has the right not to be discriminated against, and to seek accommodation, on the basis of their religious beliefs. Because this is the law, York University is required to accommodate, to the point of undue hardship, the religious beliefs and practices of their employees and students. “Undue hardship” is a legal term which is fluid and case-specific, but in the simplest of terms, it means “undue burden”. Among other factors, an undue burden can be determined by the cost and/or labour required to provide the requested accommodation and the impact of providing the accommodation on the human rights of others.

Default option

As an employer I am required by law to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of my staff. That being the case, if an employee requests the day off to observe a religious holiday, I would likely have to accommodate the request. If, however, that employee requested that I close the office and give everyone the day off on that religious holiday, I could successfully argue that it would be unworkable for me to provide the accommodation without undue burden. But the default in these kinds of requests is to provide the accommodation.

The York student’s request was a private one. If the professor had kept the request private, as would be expected, there would be no uproar. The student did not ask for female students to be treated differently, prohibited from participating in the online class or prohibited from participating in the group work. He asked that he be grouped with male students for assignments or that he be exempted from having to complete the work in a group. How would granting his request by having him complete the work on his own or placing him in a group with other male students, violate women’s equality rights? It wouldn’t.

We may not agree with the beliefs that underlie this student’s request, but his requested means of accommodation does not violate anyone else’s rights. Or provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Or sections of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

No balancing of rights

Men and women have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sex, but there’s no right for men or women to be in a study group with students who may not want to be in a group with people of the opposite sex. There is no legal balancing of rights necessary in this case because there are no competing rights in this case. If the student had asked for female students to be excluded from the classes he participated in, that would be a case of competing rights. In the balancing of rights in that scenario, request denied!

What matters here is context. Neither the student’s religion nor the basis of the religious belief preventing him from being in a study group with female students was divulged. Should it matter whether he is Muslim, Jewish, Christian or something else? In law, it doesn’t. In law, so long as the religious belief is sincere, it doesn’t matter whether it’s shared by all or most other people subscribing to a specific faith system. At least that is the opinion the Supreme Court of Canada has expressed on several occasions.

If this student truly believes that, for religious reasons, he ought not to be engaged in group work with female students, he should, at law, have his religious beliefs accommodated to the point of undue hardship.

Imagine, for a moment, his request was not a religious one. Imagine the student requesting the accommodation was Raj Koothrappali, the fictional character from the television show The Big Bang Theory. Until recently, the plotline had Raj unable, from fear, to speak in the presence of women (other than his mother) unless he had imbibed alcohol. In such a scenario, the accommodation request would be based on disability, not religion. Would that be sexist, misogynistic and a violation of women’s rights?

No one-size-fits-all

What if a female student who had been the victim of domestic abuse asked not to be placed in a group with male students? Would there be such an uproar? Would the professor have denied the request? Would the professor have discussed the request with his students? The media?

If someone would grant these latter two requests but not the one on religious grounds, perhaps their objections are rooted in their view of religion, not this specific case.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to human rights. Factual context and a proper appreciation of the law is necessary. At present, we label ourselves — constitutionally and in our laws — as a society that respects and affirms religious freedom. Until and unless we change our position as a society to one that only respects, affirms, and tolerates religious freedom for religious beliefs and actions we agree with, there is no legal basis upon which this student should not have received the accommodation he requested.

Albertos Polizogopoulos is a Partner with the firm Vincent Dagenais Gibson LLP/s.r.l. in Ottawa, Ontario. He regularly appears before courts and appellate courts including the Supreme Court of Canada to advocate for his clients’ rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression and parental authority. He also frequently appears in media interviews and on panels to discuss constitutional law. This opinion was originally published by Cardus. Reprinted by permission of Cardus and the author.

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 29 January 2014 21:12

Reasonable Accommodation: What is Reasonable?

by Andrew Griffith

In any discussion about multiculturalism, pluralism or interculturalism, the question of balance between integration, or “fitting in” to the mainstream, and accommodation, or the mainstream adapting to the various ethnic and faith-based communities, arises. The recent York University controversy, where a university student (male) asked for an accommodation for a male-only discussion group rather than the normal co-ed groups is one example; the debate over the Quebec Values Charter is another.

Different countries, and different regions within countries, interpret this question of balance reflecting their particular historical and political circumstances. France represents one extreme, with integration being implemented through a rigid Cartesian approach, specifying what is permitted and what is forbidden. This approach, called laicism, leaves little space for religious expression such as the wearing of religious symbols. Other countries, such as Canada, the US, and Australia prefer a softer, ad hoc approach that allows for the expression of religious faith, accommodates it, as a means towards integration and inclusiveness (Quebec is influenced by French debates and approaches).

Integration takes place within a context of increased globalization, where cheap travel, free communications, and community-specific specialty media makes it easier for citizens to maintain their country of origin identity and networks. Along with globalization, public policy levers are limited at the federal level, as most accommodation issues arise at the workplace, school, health, or other community levels.

Equal opportunity for success

One of the objectives of any multicultural society, any liberal democracy for that matter, is to ensure that all citizens have equal opportunity to succeed. Forcing one size fits all impedes that objective, but perceived excessive claims on accommodation equally may not assist individuals within those communities succeed to their potential. Notwithstanding this, some individuals and communities may choose to maintain a more separate identity and integrate less., subject of course to the law and the balance between rights of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

One of the key principles of reasonable accommodation is that both sides share responsibility. Just as the “mainstream” has an obligation to be flexible and accommodate, other communities have an equal obligation to be flexible and be reasonable in terms of their expectations. The request for an accommodation does not automatically mean that the precise accommodation requested needs to be granted, as that will always be subject of discussion and negotiation. At the societal level, the nature of what is “reasonable” will continue to evolve; reflecting the political process and the growth of different communities and thus requests.

Accommodation and integration

Given the integration objective of multiculturalism - we accommodate to favour integration and participation - there are a number of elements that need to be considered:

Common space: Accommodation that encourages common spaces, where people with different backgrounds mix, is preferred to accommodation that reinforces separate identity. Public schools, rather than separate schools, are a good example at the government level; participation in social and workplace activities beyond one’s community is another.

Common Norms: Whether in clothing or social etiquette, some degree of conformity facilitates integration. This is not uniformity as it allows respect for particular identities but within limits, limits that evolve over time. At the societal level, codifying common norms, beyond laws, and professional codes, becomes inherently controversial (the proposed Quebec values charter being the best example). At the individual level, insistence on gender separation or “extreme” clothing (e.g., the niqab) send signals of separation, not integration.

Participation: Common space and common norms aim at encouraging participation in wider society, beyond one’s own community. Whether in the workplace, the school, the political process or elsewhere, integration is “rubbing shoulders” together and having some shared experiences across communities.

York University flashpoint

The York University case is a good example of failing all three “tests”: the student is rejecting being part of an integrated study group, rejecting the common norm of men and women working together, and is not preparing himself for participation in a workforce with men and women. Professor Grayson made the right call in denying the accommodation request; unfortunately the University Administration did not, undermining the mandate of universities to be a centre of learning for all, without such discrimination and inequality. Similar issues have arisen in universities in other countries, and it is important that universities, as centres of learning, resist such requests. We are not talking about mixed swimming or gym classes, after all, but rather learning, discussion and the pursuit of knowledge where gender should not be an issue.

The following table provides examples of more or less reasonable accommodation. It does not attempt to be comprehensive but rather to capture a number of examples in different areas to provoke reflection and discussion. Views on what is reasonable and what is not will vary, depending on location (e.g., urban or rural) and community.


More Reasonable

Less Reasonable


Hijab, kirpan, kippa, turban etc.

Face covering (burqa, niqab)


Removal of face covering for ID purposes (e.g., airports, government offices) - same sex when possible but not right

Insistence of not revealing face when same gender not available


Availability of different foods, dietary restrictions

Segregated dining


Edmonton-type language or faith modules added on to public school day

Publicly financed faith-based schools

Gender-segregation in limited circumstances (e.g., theology schools for some faiths)

Request for gender-segregated classes and discussion groups (e.g., York University case)

Comparative and inter-faith learning

Religious instruction against charter provisions (e.g., gay rights, women - e.g., Thornhill School)


Request, if possible, for male or female medical staff

Insistence on male or female medical staff


Same gender activities where needed to increase participation

No common space for both genders


Common spaces

Segregated spaces

Acceptance of others habits, foods, cultures

Not willing to be at same table or place with others who do not share beliefs (e.g., ok if colleague eats pork, has a beer, or in a same-sex relationship)


Acknowledgement of other faiths as part of common humanity

Exclusiveness and non-acceptance


Common family law and arbitration

Separate faith-based religious tribunals (e.g., sharia, Jewish)


Normal interest in country of origin politics and events

Exclusive focus on country of origin politics (“foreign conflicts”) and events (e.g., no charitable donations towards broader community).

Andrew Griffith is the former Director General – Citizenship and Multiculturalism Branch, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). His 30-year career within the public service of Canada also included foreign postings in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Geneva (World Trade Organization) and Los Angeles. He writes a blog under the title Multicultural Meanderings and is the author of Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias.

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Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 23:41

Vivienne Poy Book Launch

Dr. Vivienne Poy’s Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada was launched at York University in Toronto recently.

The retired Senator told those in attendance that she was the first Asian in the Senate of Canada and that her new book features the stories of remarkable Chinese immigrant women to Canada.

“I called the book Passage to Promise Land because 'Promise Land' is the name I gave Canada. Immigrants coming here call it the land of promise,” she said. “Simply put, (the title) means immigration to Canada.”

Many of the people profiled in her book are from an older generation “like me and older,” she said.  “I found that recording an oral history from them was a very effective way of relating their life stories in this book.”

Spanning more than six decades, Passage to Promise Land, examines Chinese immigration to Canada from after World War II to the present day. In doing so, Poy reveals the evolution of Canada’s immigration policy and captures the social, political and ethnic tensions of the time.

Martin Singer, Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, welcomed Poy and guests and declared that the book is a “tremendous contribution (to history)”.

He also explained that the cultural diversity of his faculty, in particular, and the university, in general, reflects the multiculturalism of Canada itself.

“The role we play in making our students engaged citizens, not only nationally, but globally, is a really sacred trust that we all take seriously,” said Singer.

Poy has been a benefactor of the university providing an award for students of Asian Studies to assist in their research. Philip Kelly, Director of the York Centre for Asian Research, announced that this year’s winner of the 2013 Vivienne Poy Research Award is Alyssa Brierley. While she was in Asia conducting her research, she was able to express her gratitude and explain her work in human rights issues in India in a video that was presented at the event.

Kelly also announced that Poy has created a permanent endowment for Asian studies at York with a donation which York matched to the Centre, to create an award in perpetuity. – Based on a York University News Release

Published in Books

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