The Right to Breastfeed in Public?

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Yukon News reports that Whitehorse City Council heard, on February 4th, a policy proposal which “states that the city ‘wishes to support breastfeeding individuals and the right to breastfeed undisturbed in public places within the city, and specifically within city premises.’” This proposal stems from an incident last year, where a woman was asked by staff at the Canada Games Centre not to breastfeed in the pool.

The woman complained that her human rights, set out in Yukon’s Human Rights Act, were violated. Mentioned specifically was Section 7(f) of the Human Rights Act, which reads as follows:

 It is discrimination to treat any individual or group unfavourably on any of the following grounds […]

(f) sex, including pregnancy, and pregnancy related conditions

For the staff’s part, they were acting on the basis of the rule put in place by the Yukon Government’s Environmental Health branch which forbids eating and drinking in the pool and classified breastmilk as a “contaminant.” This classification was later rescinded, and breastmilk is now recognized by Yukon’s Environmental Health branch as “a bodily fluid ‘like sweat.'”

While the language of the statute above is unclear on the specific issue of a right to breastfeed, a British Columbia Human Rights Council case from 1997, Poirier v British Columbia (Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Recreation & Housing) sees the following reasoning at para 47:

The capacity to breast-feed is unique to the female gender. I conclude therefore that discrimination on the basis that a woman is breast-feeding is a form of sex discrimination.

This is not binding on any Yukon policymakers or legislators, but this simple and direct reasoning could nonetheless be employed and have some impact as persuasive authority. Alternatively, one could conclude that breastfeeding is within the purview of “pregnancy related conditions,” as having a child is required for breastfeeding, thereby making it inextricably linked to pregnancy and therefore a prohibited ground of discrimination. Whether breastfeeding is protected under 7(f) of Yukon’s Human Rights Act (and therefore a human right in the Yukon) is a matter of statutory interpretation.

Whitehorse City Council will see this proposal before it for adoption on February 11th.

This post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.

1 Comment on "The Right to Breastfeed in Public?"

  1. Larissa Campbell | 11/02/2019 at 2:07 am |

    Fascinating post Kevin! This is truly an issue I had never thought would arise at a pool of all places. Nonetheless, I think the BC Human Rights Council has the right idea. Keep us posted on what the ultimate outcome is of tomorrow’s City Council review of this issue.

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