Vancouver Sun shames woman for breastfeeding in public
Does the Vancouver Sun have something against mothers? Or human rights? Maybe both? It would be easy to conclude yes after a January 14th editorial by Shelley Fralic of the Vancouver Sun ridiculed a mother who was asked to leave a Vancouver store because she was breastfeeding her baby.
Here’s the situation: the mother goes shopping with her three young children in tow. After a while, the baby kicks up some sort of fuss, and, flustered, the mom looks for a private corner of the store. No one is around, so she tucks in and starts nursing.
Then, the owner comes up and asks her to stop because she is offending the customers. Apparently, they don't understand the etiquette of looking the other way if they find the sight of a legally protected activity disturbing.
Understandably, the woman is embarrassed and upset.
Then, the Vancouver Sun runs its harshly critical editorial of the mother for her decision to breastfeed in public. The editorial goes as far as to equate nursing the baby in public with “wear[ing] a bikini to a funeral, or say[ing] the F-word in front of Grandma, or wear[ing] a hat at the dinner table, or walk[ing] naked through a children's playground.”
Let’s get something straight here: parenting can be wonderful, but for most of us it is also fraught with vulnerability and judgment, regardless of whether we breastfeed. There are so many moments where, as a mother or father, you are just doing your best. You're attempting to keep the kid from tearing into the candy while getting through the check-out line at the grocery store, trying to not look like an abusive parent when your toddler decides to stage a sit-in while crossing a busy intersection and subduing a screaming baby while you hurriedly eat your lunch at the little café on the way home. And while we are doing all of this we are also thinking, “Did I feed my child enough today? Is my baby safe at daycare? Will that comment I just made to my tween cost me in therapy later?”
Congratulations, Vancouver Sun. You have managed to make the already hard job of parenting that much harder.
It wasn’t just the mother’s feelings that were violated: “breastfeeding is a human right in B.C,” said Robyn Durling, Communications Officer for the B.C. Human Rights Coalition.
Vikki Bell, Registrar at the Human Rights Tribunal, confirmed that women who feel that they have been harassed or inappropriately denied reasonable accommodation to breastfeed their child in public (including stores) can file a complaint under the sex discrimination part of the Human Rights Code.
The Human Rights Code is pretty impenetrable reading for most of us. Luckily, the Attorney General spells out how the Human Rights Code applies to the average person. Under the title Human Rights in British Columbia, Sexual Discrimination and Harassment, it says: “In B.C., it is illegal to discriminate against or harass a person because of their sex, [which] includes pregnancy, breastfeeding, and sexual harassment.” It goes on to talk about WHERE it is illegal: “It protects people from discrimination in public situations, which include schools, workplaces, universities, hospitals, medical clinics, stores, restaurants, provincial and local government offices, and transit services.”
There is no question that a store is a public space when it comes to Human Rights. It is explicitly stated. The courts won’t come into your home and tell your husband that he has to wash the dishes because you are nursing the baby, but the courts do get involved in commercial or public relationships. Durling says you can test the law by asking yourself if it would it be right to exclude all black people or all women at this place or in this situation.
“Would [the store owner] rather have a child screaming and crying? Then [someone] would probably complain the mother was neglecting the child,” Christine Ash from the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development, said.
“The store has to try and accommodate [the nursing mother]... a reasonable accommodation,” Durling said. In other words, the store doesn’t have to build a special nursing mothers' room, but they also can’t insist that she hide away in the bathroom.
Interestingly, the Attorney General’s Human Rights in British Columbia, Sexual Discrimination and Harassment that describes what kind of discrimination is illegal also says the law “protects people against discrimination in printed publications.” [Have you read the Human Rights Act, Vancouver Sun?]
“Breastfeeding is an important human right,” the Health Ministry of B.C. reminded me. It is also a health issue. And an issue of what kind of society we want to create.
Breastfeeding is hard work. Michelle Stewart, the Communications Director at the Ministry of Health Services, states that the Ministry is “strongly favorable of breastfeeding” and reiterates its importance to the health of mothers and babies. Health Canada has littered their website with information on the importance of breastfeeding. They strongly promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a baby’s life, with continued breastfeeding up to two years and beyond. Breastfeeding has been demonstrated to do everything from decrease incidence of respiratory disease to increase the I.Q. of breastfed children. It also contributes to a woman’s health by offering protection against multiple forms of cancer.
For these reasons and more, breastfeeding saves money—studies suggest that the healthcare savings for countries like the U.S. and Australia (and presumably Canada) of increased breastfeeding would be in the billions. Moms who do breastfeed should be commended and are by the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Health.
Indeed, breastfeeding is thought to be so important that it is considered a Human Right: in B.C., in Canada as a whole and by the World Health Organization of the United Nations.
It is “not the same at all” as someone deciding to run naked through a playground Durling said. “We value children,” he said, “and we place a high value on protecting pregnant women and we put a high value on mothers. The Supreme Court has recognized breastfeeding is a fundamental right.”
He continued: “Running naked through a playground is not a fundamental right. Neither is wearing your bathing suit and running through a courtroom. Protecting mothers and their essential need to feed their children is.”
Other women, by such mundane acts as taking a seat on a bus, or in the “whites-only” section of a theatre, or applying to work as a firefighter, have changed our idea of what is socially appropriate and helped us to understand that certain rights should be unalienable to all humans. No doubt many of them received a public shaming rather than a public "thank you" for their efforts.
Shame on you Vancouver Sun for condemning a woman doing such important work.
It’s kind of like telling your old grandmother that her hat is ugly after she tells you she was denied a seat at the lunch counter because of her colour, was fired from her job because of her age and was evicted from her apartment because of her sex.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.