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posted March 8, 2005

Request to the Ontario Human Rights Commission


March 1, 2005

Mr. Francois Larsen,
Director of Policy and Education Branch
Ontario Human Rights Commission
180 Dundas St.W., 9th Floor
Toronto M7A 2R9

Dear Mr.Larsen,

We are writing to you about the policy regarding breastfeeding on the OHRC web site. Of the four specific sentences under the heading "What about breastfeeding?" it's the final sentence that concerns us: They should not ask you to "cover up", disturb you, or ask you to move to another area that is more "discreet".

One of us called the OHRC on February 28 to ask how the policy content is set. The staff person said that policy is set by your department and that it's based on various things including the Code, cases, and public consultation. She was unable, however, to find any additional documentation on the breastfeeding part of your policy (for instance, whether there was public consultation).

Our representative asked about one detail of the policy wording: is there a practical difference between the word "must," and the word "should"? Your staff person seemed to find this question irritating and said that they essentially mean the same thing and that we should look it up in the dictionary.

We have no wish to be irritating. But the wording of your breastfeeding policy recently caused some difficulty in our neighbourhood. It also resulted in a hastily-drafted city policy that seems to endanger multi-cultural use of city facilities. We assume that this was not the OHR Commission's intent, and we hope you can answer our questions more helpfully than your telephone staff.

The web page that deals with breastfeeding is entitled "Pregnancy & Breastfeeding: Your Rights & Responsibilities." However we could find no reference to any responsibilities affecting breastfeeding. Near the end of the web page there is a link called "Policy on Discrimination because of Pregnancy and Breastfeeding." The linked page deals only with pregnancy, however. So we are thrown back on the four small sentences in your policy. The final sentence confuses us.

Our problem began with an unusual degree of disrobing by a woman about to breastfeed her baby, in our park's mixed-age/ culture/ sensibility rink clubhouse. (Our neighborhood is said to contain 45 different language groups.) When a friend of the park asked the women to put her shirt down more while breastfeeding - or if she didn't wish to do that, to go into the sink anteroom of our washroom where there is a more secluded chair - the woman was very unhappy. She was not compelled, by the park friend or anyone else, to do either of those things. But the fact of someone speaking to her, led her to follow up the next morning by making a human rights "gender harassment" complaint to the City of Toronto.

Your telephone staff person said she had read about our issue in the newspapers and that since women are allowed to be topless in Ontario, there was nothing to talk about. We disagree. So here's our first question:

Since our park clubhouse does not permit men to be topless any more than a restaurant or concert hall does, why would the Gwen Jacob case apply here? Doesn't it simply mandate equal treatment?

Your staff went on to say that no woman should be harassed by being made to feel ashamed of her body when breastfeeding. Since your staff person did not ask for any details of the actual incident, we assume that she is expressing the absolute sense of your policy, that no breastfeeding woman should be disturbed. It appears that one of the many things that could conceivably disturb a woman would be if anyone asked her to cover up more while breastfeeding. The City of Toronto took your policy to mean that a breastfeeding woman could take off her entire shirt and yet she must not be asked to cover up more. Nor, in such a circumstance - says the new City policy - must anyone even try to shield her state of undress from others. They would be guilty of "disturbing." Presumably this applies as much at a City Council meeting or a formal dinner hosted by the Mayor as it does at our rink clubhouse.

Here are two questions arising out of these policies:

  1. Since a woman does not need to take her shirt off while breastfeeding, nor does she need to show a great deal of the rest of her unclothed torso, does your policy intend that a breastfeeding woman has additional prerogatives besides her right to breastfeed her baby anywhere, anytime?
  2. Documentation derived from numerous e-mails we received suggests that your policy's reference to the illegality of asking has led many readers of your web site to assume that freedom of speech is suspended in the case of a breastfeeding woman. In other words, even if there is no requirement for a breastfeeding woman to cover up a bit more, but only a request in a crowded rink house with a great variety of cultures and sensibilities, the mere fact of asking a woman if she could cover up more would be illegal. Did you intend your policy to abrogate freedom of speech?

We are friends of Dufferin Grove Park. In the last thirteen years, our park has gradually changed from being rather unpleasant at times to being a lively, beloved commons for the neighbourhood. Many in our community were dumbfounded to see our friendly park being characterized as a site of a human rights violation, based on our efforts to encourage mutual accomodation across cultures inside the small crowded space of our rink clubhouse. Open, obvious breastfeeding is not the problem - our park is "breastfeeding central" - but an unusual state of undress in the clubhouse may drive other cultures away. We don't want to drive anyone away, and so the questions we have sent you are of importance to us. We look forward to your clarifications.

Yours truly,

[signed] Jutta Mason

Note, March 15, 2005: As of this date, we have not received a response to this letter.

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