Equal rights for all

I was going to write about something else this week when an item crossed my desk on Monday morning that filled me with conflicting emotions.  It was a news report about a woman who was attending an event at Lambton Golf & Country Club – a private members club in Toronto — on Saturday night.  When the woman left the dining room to breastfeed her baby out in the main lobby of the club, she was asked and ultimately escorted by staff to do so in a more discreet lounge area in the basement of the club.  Apparently, some other diners were disturbed by the sight of breastfeeding, which was still visible to them out in the hall.

The whole incident has blown up on social media and in the news, with comments running overwhelmingly against the club and its management, for their action.  Many commenters are pointing out that what the club did was illegal.  Others are urging the mother in question to file a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.  {Update: The mother in question was a guest at an event, not a member of the club at a members’ function, not that that has any real relevance except that, as a member, she may have been somewhat more sensitive to the possibility that there might be complaints.  Apparently, the complainants were members, who could see the breastfeeding from the members’ dining room.]

This is hardly an uncommon incident in our society, but it’s not one that very often becomes public, and involving a private club.  Here are my conflicting emotions:

  • in my very subjective view, I believe a woman has a right to breastfeed wherever she wishes, and I personally don’t find it offensive if it’s happening in my line of vision, or even at my table
  • but I also have respect for those who are bothered by it, generally older people from a generation that did NOT breastfeed in public; and I believe that their rights to not be bothered should not be disrespected
  • accordingly, I believe it should be incumbent on a mother to use her discretion in choosing where to nourish her child, recognizing that not everyone shares her position on her right to choose her location
  • in this case, the mother did make an attempt to relocate, but unfortunately the location she chose was not perfect for those who were disturbed by the sight
  • in complete defense of Lambton management, whose job is to accommodate everyone’s preferences to their best ability, it appears that they politely asked the mother to move, and she complied
  • the fact that the new location offered was in the “basement” is not relevant, but because “basement” connotes something akin to “storage locker”, people online have assumed something more sinister than what actually occurred
  • in moving the mother to a basement lounge, it seems to me that everyone was satisfied… the baby was fed, the mother was able to complete the activity, the more sensitive patrons were spared further inconvenience
  • I do not think that it is unfair or inappropriate to expect any mother to make every effort to ensure that she completes her breastfeeding in a discreet location, for the sake of others who might be bothered; I would also expect her to do so when changing a baby’s diaper
  • I also don’t think it was inappropriate for club staff to politely request that this mother do so

This issue partly raises the question of the rights of private clubs to set or impose policies that may not conform to “public norms”.  Many clubs, for example, have rules against wearing jeans on their property, or hats inside the clubhouse, or T-shirts, or tank tops.  Many clubs have rules against the use of cell-phones on the property.  Some clubs still have rules against the use or review of “business documents” except in certain designated areas.  None of these activities is illegal, of course, but clubs have and reserve the right to set rules of their own, including outright banning (of jeans, for example.)

The generally accepted principle is, if you don’t like our rules, don’t join our club.  If you join our club, you may raise your objection to the rules through normal democratic processes, but don’t flout the rules unless and until they are changed by the Board or by management.

Many clubs rely on “outside” (i.e., non-member sponsored or attended) events for revenue.  Usually there’s a contract that’s signed between the event organizer and the club.  I suspect most of these contracts don’t spell out all the club “rules” because it’s assumed there won’t be an issue; or perhaps the organizer is told less formally about some of the rules that should be applied to the event’s patrons… like jeans and cell phones.

I doubt very much that any private club has a specific rule about breastfeeding, either by members or guests.  I suspect that most clubs just assume that a mother will make her best effort at discretion.  In the Lambton case, an effort was made, but it wasn’t sufficient for some other patrons, and staff did their best to resolve the issue.

Yes, it may be contrary to the Human Rights Code to require a mother to change her location.  I’m sure that if the mother in this case had categorically refused, management would have quietly backed off.  But she agreed to move.

In my view, no one in this case did anything wrong.   I believe everyone’s rights were respected.

Jim Deeks
Jim Deeks has been writing for Fairways for over a dozen years. He is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Open and Canadians Skins Game, and currently the Executive Producer of CANADA FILES on PBS.

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