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posted February 7, 2005

The Breastfeeding Conflict as our Community Property

Some years ago, a Norwegian criminologist named Nils Christie wrote a famous essay entitled "Conflicts as Property." In it he suggested that conflicts are a precious resource for a community so long as the people in the community get to argue, negotiate, get mad, get over it, try out solutions - together. Once a conflict gets packed off to the courts, Christie said, the community loses the benefit of it.


Nils Christie,
Professor of Criminology

This may seem like an upside-down way of looking at trouble - as a precious "property" belonging to ordinary people, that the courts must not steal from us. But when Jutta Mason first read Christie's essay, she got really interested. Soon after that, she got involved in the park, and during the thirteen years since then, his idea really helped sometimes. Working through the hard times can make the good times sweeter.

Conflicts are scary, of course, and the temptation to hide them or gloss over them or squash them is great. So on January 8, when <b>Erika Ross</b> sent her e-mail to the "Friends of Dufferin Grove Park" - saying an illegal act, a human rights violation, had been committed by Jutta speaking to her - some park friends said, don't say anything back, just apologize fast. Jutta said, "...but I disagree with what she is saying. I just asked her to pull her shirt down more while breastfeeding, to accommodate other people."

That's where the courts come in. The <b>Human Rights Commission</b>, some park friends said, operates on the basis of "guilty until proven innocent." In this case, the friends said, no matter who is troubled by it, you're not allowed to say anything at all about a breastfeeding woman's state of undress. If you do, there may be a lawsuit, there may be a fine. There can be years of complicated negotiations in the courts, starting with a tribunal, on to a civil court case and on from there, perhaps, to an appeal.

All that for speaking to a woman who was about to breastfeed her brand new little baby? Pick your battles, said some park friends, give in and just forget about it.

But not everyone said that. Others felt that if the human rights code truly means that even just saying something to a breastfeeding woman - something that she doesn't like - is an illegal act, then the fundamental freedom of speech comes into question. That's not a question that ought to be dropped easily.

A puzzle. City Councillor Adam Giambrone said it was a "no-brainer," he knew a breastfeeding right when he saw one. E-mails carried in messages from Missouri and Louisiana, Newfoundland, Rochester, and Scranton Pennsylvania, calling for retraction or punishment. NOW Magazine published a fairly balanced article, but atoned for it by printing critical reader mail for two weeks running - with a particularly shrill one from Massachusetts. Janice Reynolds, identified as the "Consumer Rep on the Breastfeeding Committee for Canada," weighed in from Saskatchewan, talking to a friend at Toronto Public Health "high up" who told her that the Medical Health Officer had asked to be briefed about the issue. (This "consumer rep" was tireless in her ideas, even suggesting - in an online forum called mothering.commune - a plan to entrap Jutta into a pattern of lawbreaking that would make litigation easier.) Joanne Gilmour, the Toronto Public Health spokesperson, declined to talk with us. Parks and Recreation Director Don Boyle declined as well, and in an e-mail he sent on February 1, tried to shut down more discussion. (He also enclosed some fact-sheets on the benefits of breastfeeding.)

Don's "I'm not going to talk to you about it" e-mail prompted us to finally send out a "help needed" message to friends of the park. And that's where Nils Christie, the criminologist, comes back in. On the weekend after the "help needed" message, the weather was exceptionally lovely, and the rink was full of skaters from Friday to Sunday. The talk about the issue of breastfeeding/ freedom of speech/ hurt feelings flowed on and on, inside the rink house, out on the ice, up along the snow hills, around the bake oven, back inside the rink house in front of the wood stove. The breastfeeding conflict -the energetic differences of outlook that Nils Christie said should be kept within the community - began to return to their rightful context.

  • Many people expressed their incredulity about this friendly park being represented on the web, in the news, or down at City Hall as a battleground for breastfeeding rights.
  • There was also a steady thread of worry about Erika Ross, and her vulnerability as the mother of a new baby and a two-year-old, caught in a situation she surely did not anticipate when she wrote her initial e-mail.
  • Cynicism about the tunnel vision of new parents got some play among older or childless folks, and vexation about the giant strollers that block access in the rink house and the market. - At the same time, joy at the beauty and liveliness of the ubiquitous babies in what Herschel Streuman calls the "fertility crescent" in this neighborhood.
  • Over and over (among all ages, with or without kids) there was the theme of the need for balance, common sense, willingness to accommodate other cultures and ages.
  • A mother of twins told how tough it was to go places with baby twins, how you could try to be careful but you just would be uncovered sometimes. A mother with a new baby sat in the rink house with her friends and family, eating the park's beef casserole and breastfeeding at the same time, and joking about doing a typical-breastfeeding photo for the web site.
  • There was consternation about the feeling of anger that had entered the dufferingrovefriends list serve so quickly as postings began to flood in, the nastiness, the futility of making arguments in that forum. The shiftiness of the web got lots of mention - people writing in with pseudonyms or several different "handles," often from unspecified locations. (New Zealand? Ossington?)
  • And then there was the big question - if this park runs so much on good will that spreads out across differences, how do we return to that?

Back to Nils Christie again. It seems like everyone agrees on three things already - first thing, drop the e-mail arguments. This is not a virtual neighbourhood. The conflict was at Dufferin Grove Park, and that's where it will be worked out. Those folks who want to participate from outside the neighbourhood will have to come to the park in person. Second thing: the people at City Hall, who can (quite legitimately) make decisions affecting out park, need to engage directly with us about what should or could go on here. A letter-writing campaign has begun to encourage them to have a direct, open conversation (send e-mails to the general manager of Parks and Recreation, Brenda Librecz: BLibrecz@toronto.ca and Councillor Adam Giambrone: Councillor_Giambrone@toronto.ca. Third thing: stop talking about taking this conflict to court. It's unlikely to get far, but more importantly, it needs to be worked out here. The hope is that Erika Ross and her family will return to using the park with enjoyment, and will gradually, as the occasions arise, re-join the local conversation about how to accommodate differences. The shades of opinion in this conflict are as numerous as the flowers in spring, and if they're all given a legitimate place in the ongoing park conversations, maybe someday there will be a garden.


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