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.

Type

More Reasonable

Less Reasonable

Clothing

Hijab, kirpan, kippa, turban etc.

Face covering (burqa, niqab)

Identification

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

Food

Availability of different foods, dietary restrictions

Segregated dining

Education

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)

Health

Request, if possible, for male or female medical staff

Insistence on male or female medical staff

Recreation

Same gender activities where needed to increase participation

No common space for both genders

Workplace

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)

Faith

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)

Diaspora

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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