Human rights, breastfeeding and public undress
posted March 8, 2005
On January 7, 2005, Jutta Mason spoke to a woman who appeared to be taking off her shirt in the park's crowded rink clubhouse, as she was preparing to breastfeed her baby. The request Jutta made led Erika Ross to make a now-well-known human rights complaint to the City, saying her right to breastfeed her baby had been challenged. Jutta protested that it was the degree of undress she had spoken about, not the human right to breastfeed at the rink house (or anywhere else). Parks and Recreation Director Don Boyle sent word that any degree of undress while breastfeeding anywhere on city property is protected by law: "A woman has the right to be topless in public. We must recognize / respect these rights and move forward." City Councillor Adam Giambrone arranged for a formal apology to Erika Ross from the City of Toronto.
So a few of the park friends struck a legal committee ...Read more >>
The City of Toronto's radical interpretation of the human right to breastfeed undisturbed took a few weeks to achieve its final formulation. Before that, the issue spent some time in the virtual public courtroom of the internet. The complainant had sent her letter to the "Friends of Dufferin Grove Park" as well as to the City councillor. When Jutta posted that letter (and her response) on the "dufferingrovefriends" list serve, an e-storm began. Read more >>
The e-mails we got from the cybernetic global village offered many interpretations of a breastfeeding women's legal rights, based on the Ontario Human Rights Commission's policy statement on its web site:
The code prohibits discrimination in "services, goods and facilities" against women who are breast-feeding. This means that a woman cannot be prevented from breast-feeding a child in, for example, a public area or restaurant. You have rights as a nursing mother. For example, you have the right to breastfeed a child in a public area. No one should prevent you from nursing your child simply because you are in a public area.
This policy statement (not all of it found in the Ontario Human Rights Code or in existing tribunal or court decisions) had a powerful effect in shaping public opinion. One stream of interpretation came from the global village's e-court:
People's ideas on the law, part one: "I can guarantee that the Mayor and Councillor completely understand the Code as it relates to breastfeeding, now!...They have confirmed in writing that no person has the right to decide how discreet a mom needs to be while breastfeeding in public, and that there is no reason that would excuse a person or organization who asks a mother to cover up or move due to breastfeeding..... And that is how true change is made - from the top down, not from the bottom up."
People's ideas on the law, part one: Read more >>
Another stream of interpretation came from actual park users:
People's ideas on the law, part two: "Is this really an issue of one's inalienable right to sit partially naked in a public place?.....Don't we have to bend a little, to include and honor the feelings of all?"
"That some in our community might disagree is fine, but the attempt by this mother and other like minded and overly litigious individuals to impose their will and bully the rest of the community into silence forms no part of any civil society."
People's ideas on the law, part two: Read more >>
Because the Ontario Human Rights Commission's web site posting about their breastfeeding policy seemed confusing, we wrote them a letter:
"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'. ....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?" Read more >>
Both the City of Toronto Public Health breastfeeding spokesperson Joanne Gilmour, and our most vociferous e-critic from afar (Janice Reynolds from Saskatchewan) are members of the Breastfeeding Committee for Canada. The same week as our rink's breastfeeding issue was developing, this committee sent a letter to Ottawa, introducing themselves to the new head of the Public Health Authority of Canada, Dr. David Butler-Jones. They asked to be put in charge of "an integrated comprehensive approach to re-orienting Canada to a supportive breastfeeding culture." This would include "a national breastfeeding coordinator with formal authority" and a start-up budget of $323,148 in core funding.
The letter, sent on January 10 2005 and also posted on the Breastfeeding Committee for Canada's web site, sounds the alarm: if this new breastfeeding bureaucracy is not created now, Canada will be unable "to meet the operational targets outlined in the Global Strategy...for Infant and Young Child Feeding." This is even more serious when the lifelong health costs of wrong eating are taken into account: "Clearly, re-orienting Canadians to healthy eating beginning with breastfeeding is a complex undertaking and is not a short-term project."
Global goals of such overwhelming ambition may swamp out the everyday concerns of people living in any particular place. That may be why Toronto Public Health couldn't take the time to answer our questions about the City's breastfeeding policy. Read more >>
Silence in the face of our questions was a common feature throughout this breastfeeding issue. The city councillor for our area, Adam Giambrone, sent out a public letter saying "When it comes to human rights like those afforded to breast-feeding mothers, there is no wiggle room to be found....The decision to encourage a nursing mother to 'cover up' a little more or move to a more discreet location contravened the mother's rightful expectation of dignified and respectful treatment in a public facility." This and similar official statements led us to both ask the general manager of Parks and Recreation and, eventually, ask Toronto's Chief Administrative Officer, to apply due process to this incident. We asked them to use "the City protocol for investigating, fact-finding, adjudicating and communicating its decisions in response to complaints alleging breaches of people's human rights."
However neither of these officials ever answered the letters we sent them.
In the end, this leaves us back at the park, doing the same things as before the cyberstorm began. The issue of public breastfeeding was briefly lifted out of its context as part of ordinary neighbourhood life. E-mails from far away made assumptions about this park that shocked many park friends with their nasty tone. Official statements seemed unhinged from what actually goes on here. Eventually, various park friends were moved to write in about their park breastfeeding experiences:
"I nursed my two youngest children all over the park: in the rink house, in the playground, on the hill by the Farmers' Market, during Friday night suppers, sitting, standing and sometimes even while walking. I always felt comfortable nursing my children at the park and consider it to be a place where breastfeeding is very much accepted. (Consider how common it is to see women nursing at the Farmers' Market and contrast this to the number of times you have seen anyone breastfeed at a store like Loblaws or No Frills......)"
Read more >>