[back] Breastfeeding in Public

A Story Of Harassment


I'm a New Yorker living in Toronto with my husband and our two children.  For  two years my family and several of our close friends have taken our kids to Dufferin Grove Park here for dinner and ice skating. On Friday, January 7, 2005 a group of us were sitting at a long picnic table in the middle of the rink house until it was time for the volunteers and staff to clean up in preparation for closing for the evening.

I, my family, and two of our friends got up from the table so the staff could fold it up. We were collecting our things and looking for a friend's daughter's pair of Hello Kitty gloves, which we suspected had 'walked.'

My baby daughter, disrupted a bit by the ruckus of getting up, started to root, so as I got up I instinctively lifted my t-shirt to my shoulders in front, snapped down the left side of my t-back Bravado nursing tank and went to latch her on. She was twelve days old at the time, and she had mild latch difficulties since birth so it took her a few times of popping on and off the nipple before she settled in.  I was attempting to round up my rambunctious two-year-old at the same time. 

 Next thing I knew a woman was standing next to me trying to shield me from the rest of the room. She asked me if I wanted to go somewhere more private and suggested I pull up a chair in the washroom. I said, "No thanks. She just needs to latch then we'll be fine." She seemed dissatisfied with this and immediately replied, "Yes. Yes. I think you do." She went to put her arm around me and physically escort me to the washroom.

I think I shot enough daggers out of my eyes that she didn't touch me for long. I angrily grabbed my sweater, which I had been about to put on over my baby in the sling in preparation to go outside. I put it over my baby's head and went to sit down in an uninhabited corner of the room where I could still see my two-year-old son. I was annoyed that I was forced to sit and finish feeding the baby before I could get ready to go.  My son was melting down.  He needed to get home and to bed on time.

The woman then came over to where I was sitting and attempted to convince me I was being immodest. She began to tell me how Native American women in the neighborhood were spearheading some kind of modesty in breastfeeding campaign.  I had no idea what she was talking about, but one of my best friends is Native, and I took major offense at the implication that Native Americans are somehow less “modest.”  I began to offer the obvious defenses, "But I breastfeed at the mall and on the streetcar with no problem." She seemed to think the rink house was different. She asked me if I'd ever been to other Toronto rink houses, which was a line of conversation I found irrelevant. Still trying to feed a very young baby, I said nothing in response and after a fashion she got up, said, "It's obvious you don't agree with me," and stormed off.

I went home and sent a mild letter of complaint to the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park and cc'ed the city councillor for that region. The next day I found my letter was posted publicly to an e-list along with my full name and e-mail address.  It became clear to me that the woman in question was in fact the organizer of the Friday night suppers and a prominent community member. This turn of events, making my full name and e-mail address public for discussion amongst strangers, made me very uncomfortable. Her gross exaggeration of the incident - insinuating that I had lasciviously removed my top to breastfeed in the middle of a room full of young male hockey players – was untrue, insulting, and humiliating.

Outrage against this woman's actions ensued on the e-list.  I didn't respond publicly. I tried to keep a low profile and work with the city parks department toward a resolution.

By Monday the woman, also editor of the park newsletter, had reprinted the January newsletter to include her position on breastfeeding. She called it the "practice" or "etiquette" of the park community to avoid "radical disrobing" while breastfeeding or to take it to a secluded corner or to the washroom.  Legions of people, particularly those who were privy to her earlier defamatory comments, began to e-mail the mayor, city councillors, and their local breastfeeding advocacy organizations.

 The woman continued to defame me on the internet and in print for several weeks.  Although the city unilaterally asked her to apologize, she refused.  My impression is that she equated apologizing with admitting her point of view was invalid. Honestly, a simple, “I'm sorry I was rude,” would have worked, because physically trying to remove me from a room where my toddler was running around while my baby was trying to latch onto the breast was rude, regardless of anyone's opinion on breastfeeding in public.

 My story was run in NOW Magazine, Canada's Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, and on local radio and television talk shows. 

 At the end of January I did receive a formal letter of apology from the parks department on whose property the incident occurred.   Abut it doesn't change much.  Dufferin Grove Park continues to be the center for events in my and my son's social circle, but I am no longer comfortable going there.  In short, the incident and the woman's refusal to apologize have added constraints to my daily life ever since.

At the time the woman approached me in the rink house I was thinking, “I wish I knew the exact codes/policies/laws that apply to this in Ontario so I could stop her from pressing the issue further!” But I had to wait until I got home to look up the law. I wish I had been forearmed with the exact letter of the Human Rights Code on the tip of my tongue. A friend gave me the idea to print the relevant text of the Code on business cards to hand to 'inquisitive' folks if anything like this were to happen again. I love the idea and I highly recommend it to others!

 Erika Ross

Native New Yorker and Full-time Mama to two beautiful Canadians.

 Harassment Links
Women protest breastfeeding rights during "nurse-in" in Grand Rapids
This "nurse-in" was prompted by a situation Nietling says was inexcusable. Jennifer Seif was at the Kent County Clerk's Office applying for her baby's birth certificate when she began breastfeeding. Seif says County Clerk Mary Hollinrake asked her to cover up or leave.