Summer 97 Newsletter INFACT Canada


BC law decides breastfeeding
is a woman’s right

Landmark decision ends six-year battle for Michelle Poirier

Women, Work and BreastfeedingAt last breastfeeding women in BC have the clarity of the law--stopping women from breastfeeding at work or in public is a form of sex discrimination and is prohibited under that province’s Human Rights Code.

The clarification came in a decision handed down on July 30,1997, regarding the case brought by Michelle Poirier against her former employer, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. After Michelle had breastfed her daughter Aaneli at a noon-hour seminar in March 1991, the ministry introduced a policy barring children from the workplace.

“The reactions of the Respondent had the effect of imposing burdens on the Complainant that were not imposed on other employees because of the fact that she was breastfeeding her child,” wrote Tom Patch member of the Human Rights Tribunal in his Reasons for the Decision. He noted that there are no Canadian cases which address whether discrimination against a woman who is breastfeeding is prohibited by human rights legislation. But that analogies can be drawn to cases related to pregnancy. In Brooks vs Canada Safeway the court concluded that distinctions based on pregnancy, can be none other than distinctions based on sex (Chief Justice Dickson, 1989).

Although breastfeeding is a basic human right, it is when women try to exercise this right that problems of harassment occur. Human rights legislation in most provinces do not specify breastfeeding as a right, therefore the BC decision will be influential in determining similar cases in other provinces.

The precedent-setting decision extends well beyond the workplace. It clarifies that it is illegal to ask a woman to refrain from breastfeeding in a school yard, shopping mall or recreation centre or in a restaurant or in fact in any place open to the public.

Poirier hopes the decision will bolster women’s self-confidence in public and encourage women to provide their children with the benefits of breastmilk even after they return to the workplace. “We only hope this decision will help to normalize the natural functioning of the female body so that women in our society have greater support to participate fully in their communities and their economy.” (Continues on next page--Q & A with Michelle Poirier)

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