Summer 97 Newsletter INFACT Canada

Questions and Answers with Michelle Poirier

INFACT: What is the decision?
To my mind, the most important aspect of the decision is Mr. Patch’s conclusion that discrimination against a woman because she is breastfeeding is discrimination on the basis of sex.
Secondly, Mr. Patch decided that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, by introducing a policy excluding children from the workplace without providing me as a breastfeeding mother with reasonable accommodation, discriminated against me. In other words, I had a right as an employee to address physical needs as a breastfeeding mother without impediment from my employer--as long as accommodating those needs did not impose undue hardship on my employer.

INFACT: What does the decision mean?
Technically what I believe this decision to mean is that unless an employer can prove that there are genuine business reasons to disallow children in the workplace, breastfeeding women in BC have the right to have their children brought to them to be fed if they feel that is the best way for them to meet their breastfeeding needs.
It also means, as I understand it, that if, for genuine business reasons a breastfeeding mother cannot have access to her child–or if feeding her child is not the best way for her to meet her physical needs–her employer must provide alternative accommodation: for example, allow the women to leave the workplace during breaks or allow the women to modify her work and break schedule–or give the women access to a private, quiet suitable space to feed her child or to express her breastmilk.

INFACT: Why is this decision important?
Legally this decision is important because it sets a precedent. When I first went to the council for human rights, as it was then known, to ask if my employer could discriminate against me because I was breastfeeding, I was told, “We don’t know.”
So, in order to establish if I even had grounds to ask my employer to act more reasonably, they said I had to file a complaint. At the time, I not only did not have the courage to file a complaint, I also felt it was not the most productive course of action.
Without legal clarity I had to argue for accommodation using only my personal logic, a logic my employer could dismiss arbitrarily.
This decision, then, has the potential to prevent employers from taking actions that could form the basis for complaints. And will certainly support the resolution of complaints out of court.
Socially this decision is important in that any measure that supports women’s unimpeded access to the workplace has value, for women and the economy.
Any measure that supports mothers to prolong breastfeeding for as long as they feel their children will benefit has immeasurable value, for children, for women, for employers and for society. Children are healthier, mothers are less stressed and employers enjoy greater productivity and less absenteeism. And we all benefit from savings to the health care system.

INFACT: How do you feel about the decision?
The fact that we have a decision is one thing. And there’s a small part of me that’s dancing a soft little jig and saying, “Yippee, it’s over.”
The decision itself is, of course, largely what we were seeking; to that end, it is useful. In the end there is a certain satisfaction that even when the evidence is stripped down to the barest essentials, the discrimination against me is obvious. It is clear that for an employer to schedule work related events during a noon break and then not accommodate the needs of a lactating employee either to bring her child with her, or to sanction an alternative break for her to go to her child, is discrimination on the basis of sex.

In her news release Michelle Poirier made special mention to thank INFACT Canada. She said, “The many years of work they have done researching and advocating for legal protection of women’s rights to breastfeed meant they were able to provide valuable research materials and precious encouragement at critical times. I am greatly indebted to them.”

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