A student enrolled in an online course at York University asked to be excused from an in-person session that involved both men and women on the basis of his religious beliefs, which forbade him attending a public session that included women. His professor, Paul Grayson, refused his request on the basis of apparent sexism, but the school’s dean of arts as well as the university provost supported the student’s request, insisting that he be accommodated mostly because the course was offered online and not as regular in-person class sessions.

Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay disagreed publicly with the university’s decision, citing Canada’s continuing role in ensuring students of both sexes can attend schools together in Afghanistan. Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair also cited the decision as sexist. However, Ontario’s ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities supported York’s approach. From such dissent at high levels of government it is clear that specific issues involving accommodating religious rights in secular environments remains a challenge in Canada, which is one of the most culturally diverse nations on earth.

Additional Background Information:

York University is located in Toronto, Ontario, serving one of the most ethnically diverse  populations in the world. Toronto and its neighbouring/adjoining cities—Oshawa, Mississauga, Burlington, Oakville, Hamilton and Ste. Catharines, an area known as the Golden Horseshoe—are home to nearly 9,000,000 Canadians, more than a quarter of the population of Canada in total. In the greater Toronto area, about 50 percent of all residents are termed visible minorities, meaning that their physical appearances are different from those of the typical European-Canadian population.

Toronto’s diverse population benefits from an official federal policy of multiculturalism. This term refers to a longstanding Canadian commitment to ensuring that immigrants—as well as indigenous First Nations peoples—are allowed and even encouraged to retain their cultures and languages, even as they assimilate as necessary into the larger population. Unlike the melting pot model of the United States, which suggests that immigrants merge their identities into one singular American identity, the Canadian model holds that our country is stronger and richer when immigrants are allowed to retain key features of their identities—especially their cultural and religious practices. A 1965 study by John Porter, entitled The Vertical Mosaic, however, showed that Canadian immigrants do not have equal access to power, suggesting that Canada’s model is more like a vertical mosaic, where cultures may remain separate, but that members of minority cultures do not share equally in power arrangements. (See: The Canadian Encyclopedia:

Incidents such as the one at York University underscore the need to continually refresh and adjust Canadian laws, regulations and traditions in order to ensure that all Canadians’ customs and religions are similarly accommodated in our institutions. Students can benefit from a lesson that encourages them to consider how and why religious and cultural differences of all Canadians require careful consideration and accommodation to the extent that is possible.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, religious studies, law

Key Question to Explore:

To what extent should secular Canadian institutions accommodate the religious or cultural needs of its citizens?

New Terminology:

Multiculturalism, pluralism, sexism, secularism

Materials Needed:

Globe article, as handout

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

Students will meet in groups to discuss a list of questions derived from the article; they will work together on an oral presentation at the end of the class session.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Organize your class into groups to discuss the following questions. Groups are to choose a leader and a note-taker. Allow fifteen minutes at the end of class for groups to present their discussion summaries.


Have a student volunteer to read the Globe article aloud to his or her group. Use the following questions to guide your discussion, ensuring that someone is taking notes. When you have addressed all the questions, prepare a bullet-point summary and ask for a volunteer to present it orally to class.

  • Summarize the issue described in this article by answering a typical reporter’s  “W-5” questions: “Who, What, Where, When and Why?” For example, in a simple, imagined story, “A man named Michel [who?] ate a whole apple pie [what?] at the bake sale in the community centre  [where?] on Friday [when?] because he was really hungry [why?].”
  • Ask each member of your group to give his or her opinions on the positions taken by each of the following: The student; the professor; the dean; the provost; the lawyer; the representative of theprovincial government.
  • After discussing these positions, take a poll of your group members to see who agrees or disagrees with each of these persons’ opinions on the issue. Record the vote.
  • Brainstorm other possible issues, similar to this one, that are derived from religious beliefs that might raise similar problems. For example, perhaps a teacher has religious beliefs that prevent him or her from celebrating Halloween: Would it be acceptable for him or her to prevent his or her students from having a Halloween party? Think of four more examples.
  • Discuss this question: Is it reasonable to ask a newcomer to Canada to adjust his or her religious or cultural beliefs to be more aligned with the major established religions in Canada? Consider: School holidays and Christmas, Diwali, Hannukkah, (name more)
  • What kind of attire is considered acceptable in public places (cultural or religious items of clothing; revealing clothing and so  on)
  • List a few examples of different groups in Canada who can be identified as being of a certain cultural or religious group solely by their appearances. (For example, many Catholic priests wear a white clerical collar; Sikhs often wear turbans.)
  • Finally, discuss this claim and poll your group to determine who supports it and who does not (reasons must be given for both positions): Religious, cultural or secular rights that are denied to any one Canadian citizen are thus denied to all Canadians, because we are a democracy.

Consolidation of Learning:

Students will present their groups’ positions and views and discuss the differences among them.

Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

Students have completed the tasks and are expressing their views based on their groups discussions such that they appear to have understood the lesson.

Confirming Activity:

Each student will write a short, one-paragraph, position on York University incident, noting who he or she supports or does not and why.