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posted March 13, 2005. Pictures are from the Park, over the years.

Breastfeeding Crisis: The Virtual Courtroom

A review of emails from the virtual village

From Jutta Mason: E-mails were forwarded from friend to friend. Virtual neighbours from nearby cities quickly joined the list serve and then a "Breastfeeding News" service from Saskatchewan passed the complainant's account on to their moderator's list of 500 "lactivists" across Canada and the U.S. Many of those who posted their opinions said they were outraged at my illegal act, and they notified the press. NOW Magazine did a story, which was followed by more outraged e-letters from far away.

Meanwhile, back at the park, I added an item entitled "Breastfeeding etiquette" to the January park newsletter. I described the existing practice at the rink house: mothers are welcome to breastfeed their babies anywhere, anytime. Our park is probably the breastfeeding capital of Toronto's public space, and babies suckling contentedly at their mothers' breasts are a very common sight. And then I added the new accomodation for the human rights complaint: <em>if</em> a mother chose to disrobe quite a bit more than usual while breastfeeding, I wrote, (or even chose to take off her shirt altogether) someone could pull the curtain that divides our rink house in two, to obscure her from the rest of the room. The newsletter also said that if the mother wished, she could also sit in a comfortable wicker chair in the sink area of the women's washroom (the cleanest, most private area in our often-crowded rink clubhouse). No one, of course, would disturb the breastfeeding mother by asking her if she wanted to sit there. But if she read the newsletter, she'd know the chair was there.

The newsletter gave the reason for the curtain and the privacy: the great diversity of cultures, ages, and sensibilities in the people who use the rink house (our part of Toronto is said to include forty-five language groups). For some of these rink users, an unusual state of undress, of either gender, is sufficiently disturbing that they would feel the rink house is not a good place to go. The newsletter said "although some of our recent e-critics are of the opinion that 'those who feel uncomfortable are free to leave,' we prefer to keep all the rink users with us, mixed as before."

I had hoped that this newsletter item, also posted on the newsletter section of our park web site, would help show that our park was full of good will toward the many breastfeeding mothers and their babies who come here. But my words inflamed the outrage of the virtual courtroom even more. Dozens of new e-mails arrived at the park web site. "The term "etiquette" used in conjunction with a human rights issue is completely inappropriate." "I think some people need to shove their 'cultural sensitivities.'"

The virtual people's court let me know that "the crystal clear language of the code" showed without a doubt that what was in the newsletter "could be used as evidence against you at a Tribunal hearing." I was a "crazed charter basher...trying to quash people's rights." From Rochester: "If it was me, at this point, I would just be suing her butt off..." From Saskatchewan: "...I love how she keeps bringing up the whole 'not yet tested in courts' clause. Does she really want to be the one who gets sued so they can be tested? [She should] back down, apologize, and shut up..."

The fact that I would not recant and apologize seemed particularly worthy of punishment. "I would take away your newsletter privileges...You also owe anyone who has read this newsletter and found it offensive a contrite retraction and sincere atonement, because your entire demeanor and method of defending your illegal actions is offensive." It seemed clear that some of the virtual court were itching to parade me in front of my fellow citizens in a prison suit, so that everyone could learn from my sad example. My "illegal attitudes" were the subject line for one series of postings.

Wicker chair in washroom

Many of my e-judges apparently had not actually read the newsletter item. They were sure I was guilty of requiring all breastfeeding women to sit and nurse in the washroom, which was the same as racism: "We wouldn't tolerate an openly racist 'policy' requiring Jews, or same-sex couples, or Aboriginal peoples to sit in the washroom for the comfort of others." The cultural "quilt" in the park that I had referred to elsewhere in the newsletter had been ruined by my presence: "Your 'point of view' is wrong, and bigoted. It has no place in ANY 'quilt,' any more than putting a swastika or other culturally insensitive symbol on a community quilt would be welcomed." The case was clear: "If Ms Mason is not prepared to accept this and to apologize in public...she quite simply should not be permitted to be associated with a City facility." (If even the training course that the complainant wants to mandate for all staff and volunteers hadn't brought me around.)

These e-mails didn't only go to our park web site. They also went to the Mayor, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the media, to City Councillor Giambrone, and to Toronto Public Health. The "Breastfeeding News" moderator from Saskatchewan posted to a forum called "mothering.commune": "I've been in contact with someone at City Hall. Seems this has caused quite a furor. I was able to share the mom's side of the story (she had emailed me her version)...I know from my contact who works in Toronto Public Health (high up) that this whole thing has become a "hot issue" across several depts, and she was just starting to work on their response this week. Also the Medical Health Officer asked to be briefed about it. I am forwarding everything I know to her, including Jutta's statement this weekend that she will NOT apologize."

Neither the Medical Officer of Health, nor his staff, nor the Parks and Recreation director, ever asked me for my account of the issue. But a posting from Scranton Pennsylvania on the mothering.commune forum enthused "I cc'd to and Councillor Gambione [sic] who responded very positively to me today via email." And from the Saskatchewan moderator again: "I can guarantee that the Mayor and Councillor completely understand the Code as it relates to bfing [breastfeeding], now! And that is how true change is made - from the top down, not from the bottom up."

<p>So Councillor Giambrone, Director Don Boyle, and Toronto Public Health released their public statements, each made sure the park got a copy, the City officially apologized to the complainant, and that was supposed to be the end of it. (Councillor Giambrone cautioned us that there was no "wiggle room" in this.)

The people's e-court erupted in triumph on the mothering.commune forum: "WHAT A VICTORY!!!!! For Parks & Rec to apologize... that's great! And Councillor Giambrone's letter was VERY strongly worded. I'm sure Jutta will find some "wiggle" room to continue to defend her indefensible position..... but the important thing is here, she does not have a leg to stand on with: The City, Parks & Rec, The HRC and anyone outside her circle of devoted fans."

At that point I didn't even have my "devoted fans" propping me up, since most of the people in the park had no idea that the breastfeeding complaint was still going on. January is a very busy time at the park. The rink is often full of people, playing shinny hockey or talking to each other at the zamboni café, or reading stories to their older kids by the wood stove while breastfeeding a baby. The farmers' market squeezes in every Thursday. Some days there are winter campfires outside. The snow hills made by the zamboni are dotted with little kids ... a joyful time. February's the same. Nothing was obviously wrong; it didn't occur to anyone that human rights were being violated. So when I finally decided I'd better ask other park friends for help, they were mostly caught by surprise. The surprise gave way to consternation, and a different kind of e-mail began flowing in to City Hall. The new letters were local, not global. The local opinions on breastfeeding and on human rights, grounded in an actual place rather than floating in the global cybernetic village, painted a different picture.

[See also Breasfeeding at the park: Opinions of Park Friends, and People's idea of the law part II: emails from people who actually use the park. For all correspondence extracts we collected during this crisis, start with The Main Letters, and follow the links]

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