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Can a woman breastfeed in public?

Breastfeeding in public has become a contentious issue in Canada.

No matter how one feels about the issue though, Canadian law gives women the right to breastfeed in public.

What are the laws that allow for breastfeeding in public?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out under s. 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.”

The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms also has sections which indirectly give a woman the right to breastfeed in public and contains a paragraph similar to the s. 15 paragraph in the Canadian charter which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex.

Discrimination against a woman who breastfeeds falls under sex discrimination as per the Supreme Court of Canada.

Supreme Court decision

In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision on Brooks v. Canada Safeway Ltd., in which it found that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. While the decision didn’t specifically talk about breastfeeding, it is included in most human rights codes under the definition of “pregnancy”.

Human rights law

Federal, provincial and territorial human rights law in Canada has recognized pregnancy and breastfeeding as a human right and therefore women cannot be discriminated against on the basis of pregnancy, in public nor at work.

For example, The Canadian Human Rights Commission states that breastfeeding employees must be accommodated by the employer, which includes:

  • Providing a suitable clean place to breast-feed or express milk and to store milk;
  • Providing longer or extra breaks for the purpose of breast-feeding or expressing milk; 
  • Allowing for the extension of maternity leave;
  • Allowing for alternative work arrangements. 

Ontario human rights law expressly states that there are code protections for women who are pregnant and breastfeeding and those women have the right to breastfeed in public. The OHRC defines breastfeeding as a health issue and not one of public decency. Therefore, under Ontario human rights law breastfeeding mothers have the right to nurse their babies in public without having to be exposed to negative comments or harassment. If a person makes derogatory comments towards a woman who is breastfeeding in public they may face legal repercussions.

The same goes in provinces like British Columbia and Alberta in which it is forbidden to “deny women the decision to breastfeed in public or at work, or refuse to accommodate breastfeeding.”

While not all provinces and territories may spell out the right of a woman to breastfeed in public, they do have the right to do so according to the Canadian charter as denying them the right to do so is discrimination.

What can a woman do if she is being harassed due to her decision to breastfeed in public?

She can file a human rights complaint with the human rights commission of your province or territory.

If she is facing an immediate threat and believes she is in danger of physical harm, the police should be called.

If you believe you have been discriminated against because you were breastfeeding in public or lack of accommodation at work consult a lawyer.

Read more:

Brooks v. Canada Safeway Ltd.

Breastfeeding, it’s your right!

Canadian Human Rights Commission - breastfeeding

Ontario Human Rights Commission - breastfeeding