John Moore: 'Reasonable accommodation': An idiot's guide

Written by  //  October 30, 2007  //  Canada, Immigration/migration, John Moore  //  No comments

30 October 2007
National Post

Apologies, but I am a semanticist and a pedant. It genuinely irks me that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. Technically, to indicate that something would not burn one would have to label it “uninflammable.” And so it is with the term “reasonable accommodation.”
The debate over just how much newcomers need to change to adapt to their new country is as old as Canada itself (one wonders if the natives had a problem with the French explorers the first time they said they’d take a pass on the whole potlatch thing). But the term “reasonable accommodation” is only a year or so old, hatched first in French by the Quebecois who, in spite of their much-vaunted and now legally entrenched specialness, seem to suffer the greatest angst over the perceived threat of newcomers.
Here’s this pedant’s problem: No-one pays any attention to one of the two words in the phrase. “Reasonable” is like a silent letter. How hard is it to actually define the term? Let’s review some of the most famous case studies:

-A Muslim girl wants to wear a head scarf while she plays soccer. It poses no security risk and does not interfere with the game. Reasonable.

-A witness to Quebec’s commission on accommodation wonders allowed why Jews have their own hospital in Montreal. Let’s see:They paid for it, it’s one of the best hospitals in the city and they accept all comers. Reasonable.

-The owner of a sugar shack offers pork-free meals to Muslims. Reasonable — and enterprising. Why Quebecers aren’t thrilled that newcomers are clamouring to enjoy this health-threatening, spoon-clicking bit of cultural arcana is a mystery to this writer.

-Muslim (oh, can we just face it? It’s all about the Muslims) students at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto are unhappy that the student pub serves alcohol, which apparently makes it impossible for them to frequent it. They would like their own separate pub. Unreasonable. If it’s that big a deal, build your own.

-Taxi drivers (Muslim) in Minneapolis want the right to decline riders with booze and dogs (which many Muslims consider unclean). Unreasonable. Pick up everyone or find another line of business.

-The operators of an Orthodox Jewish school for boys find the stretching of lithe female bodies in the YMCA next door distracting. They ask if they can pay to have the windows tinted. Reasonable. Yes, reasonable, since this was a deal between two fully informed parties, not a human rights tribunal directive. (It was only after YMCA clients found out why the windows had been tinted that they began squawking about being oppressed.)

We can take this exercise into the past. Let’s imagine it’s the end of the 19th century and Chinese labourers who built the railway want to bring their wives and girlfriends to live with them in Canada. Reasonable. But it never happened.
It’s the 1960s and the Dukabors insist that, owing to their religion, they cannot pay taxes. When they are compelled to pay taxes, they take off all their cloths and burn down their houses. Unreasonable, unsafe and highly unpleasant to look at.
It’s the 1970s and Italians, Portuguese and Greeks want to roast whole animals on spits in public parks. Reasonable.
It’s the 1980s and Sikhs who want to serve in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ask for regulation turbans. Reasonable. It’s just a hat, people!
And so it will continue. Newcomers will arrive in Canada bringing along a few customs from the old country. As we always have, we will find some of these customs delightful, and they’ll become another tile in the Canadian mosaic. Others we will allow because they have little if any impact upon us. Those customs that are genuinely incompatible with our culture we will weed out.
Quebec, in its current spasms, seems incapable of understanding that the “reasonable” in “reasonable accommodation” is not really all that difficult to define. For the most part, the genital mutilation, summary stonings and overweening religiosity that the people of Herouxville so fear is exactly what the newcomers came here to escape.

[email protected] – John Moore is the host of the drive home show on NewsTalk 1010 CFRB. Outside of Toronto, he can be heard atwww.cfrb.com.

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