On Campus

Thanks to York, we now know where the line is drawn

Our editorial on the silver lining in a rights controversy

University of Guelph (Jessica Darmanin)

The religious accommodation controversy at Toronto’s York University, while fully deserving of the outrage it has generated, ought to be considered a (mostly) good news story. It has a happy ending that was achieved rather quickly. And the experience suggests Canadians have a clear sense of where lines need to be drawn when it comes to human rights, even if officialdom does not.

To recap for the benefit of anyone who missed the story until now: in September a male student in professor J. Paul Grayson’s online sociology course at York requested that he be excused from participating in a group assignment so he wouldn’t have to interact with women, which, he claimed, would violate his religious beliefs. (His religion is unknown, for privacy reasons.)

Professor Grayson felt he could not accede to such a request as it violated his sense of equity between men and women. To give his decision official imprimatur, he asked for guidance from the dean’s office and the school’s human rights body. Both sided with the student and told Grayson to make the necessary accommodation.

Nevertheless, the professor sought and received backing for his original position from his department and turned down the student’s request. After hearing the professor’s decision, the student accepted the outcome, writing to Graydon that: “I cannot expect that everything will perfectly suit what I would consider an ideal situation. I will respect the final decision.” He participated in the group assignment, women and all.

Up to this point, a potentially explosive issue of competing rights has been turned into a non-issue, and for principled reasons. Further, the decision was recognized as reasonable by all parties directly involved. Left to their own devices, Canadians have ample ability to find common ground amid common sense.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Regardless of the fact the student accepted Grayson’s decision, the dean’s office steadfastly argues it was the wrong outcome; the request should have been accepted. In a subsequent letter to York faculty, dean of arts Martin Singer says, “I was obliged to conclude that the student’s request had to be accommodated. I wish I had had another choice.” According to Singer, the issue turns on “the professor’s disapproval of the student’s beliefs. But that disapproval of belief is precisely the way that discrimination on the grounds of creed is defined.”

The disapproval Grayson expressed at segregating his class’s group work by gender is not merely a personal belief. Equality for all citizens is a core concept of modern Canada.

Canadian society readily provides numerous religious accommodations—ranging from allowing Sikhs in the RCMP to wear alternate headgear to recognizing a multiplicity of religious holidays—in order to permit diversity of opportunity and observance. In this case, however, the objective is not to facilitate the participation of religious belief within mainstream Canadian society; rather it seeks to exclude and discriminate for religious reasons. This attitude toward women is as unacceptable as it would be for another student to request to be excused, for whatever reason, from contact with black people, gays or bearded men.

While it apparently remains official policy at York to indulge every request for special religious treatment regardless of implication or precedent, such blind adherence to patently absurd policy may ultimately prove to be a good thing. The massive publicity given this story—it dominated national news media and online forums and has been reported everywhere from Europe to Japan to Australia—and the universal disapproval of York’s administrative position may serve as a wake-up call for Canadians, highlighting the extent to which the bureaucratic concept of human rights has lost contact with common sense.

It is a familiar scenario for us at Maclean’s, given our long and difficult entanglement with federal and provincial human rights commissions over stories we published on radical Islam. While we were exonerated in all cases, the sight of state tribunals investigating our work was such an obvious threat to freedom of the press that it mobilized Canadians to demand change. The end result was the 2012 repeal of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, an ill-considered piece of federal law that allowed complainants to seek redress from media organizations whenever their feelings were hurt.

Hopefully the attention focused on York’s outrageous claim that it had “no choice” but to promote institutionalized gender segregation will serve as a similar catalyst, leading to further changes in how human rights are defined and considered across Canada. And that would be very good news indeed.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.