September 22, 2010
Your Right to Breastfeed in Canada
Despite the fact that one would have to work very hard to catch sight of anything not already advertising the latest in women's underwear on 20 foot billboards, there seem to be some people determined to be offended by the very idea of breastfeeding outside the home. Thankfully, these people seem to be increasingly rare.
For mothers dealing with young babies, getting outside and around other people is a key to warding off the depression and isolation that can follow from being so enveloped in one (small) person's needs. The fear of public confrontation combined with uncertainty as to the extent of the right to breastfeed can compound this depression and isolation. For this reason, it is important to understand your rights in Canada as a breastfeeding mother.
In Ontario and British Columbia, the right to breastfeed in public is specifically protected in those provinces' Human Rights Codes. In both provinces, nursing mothers have the right to breastfeed their children in a public area, and it is illegal discrimination to ask them to cover up or breastfeed somewhere else. Public areas are not limited to government or outdoor spaces. Restaurants, malls, stores, transit, etc. are also public spaces where women are entitled to breastfeed.
If you are in Ontario or British Columbia, and someone who works in a public area tells you to cover up, move or stop breastfeeding your baby, you may want to inform them that what they are asking you to do is illegal under the Human Rights Code and they are committing a human rights violation on behalf of their employer. If you are so inclined, you may also request to speak with their supervisor and/or make a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal. Often, people are just uninformed about a mother's right to breastfeed in public and an intervention of this kind may be an opportunity to educate the person about the law in this area. In BC, the Ministry of the Attorney General has published a fact sheet about this issue that can be printed out and tucked into a diaper bag, just in case.
While the Human Rights Codes in other provinces may not specifically protect the right to breastfeed in public, it is very likely that this right is protected under the Canadian Charter of Human Rights, which provides in section 28 that "Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons" and in section 15 that "Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." Together, these sections almost certainly make it illegal to discriminate against breastfeeding women, since only women breastfeed and therefore asking them to leave, cover up or move amounts to sex discrimination.
Unfortunately, the Charter only applies to governmental organizations, so it won't protect your right to feed your baby in your local coffee shop. Which is the reason why the other eight provinces need to amend their Human Rights Codes.