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Shannon Smith with her baby near the store where she was asked to stop breast feeding in Montreal, Jan.9, 2011. (John Morstad for The Globe and Mail/John Morstad for The Globe and Mail)
Shannon Smith with her baby near the store where she was asked to stop breast feeding in Montreal, Jan.9, 2011. (John Morstad for The Globe and Mail/John Morstad for The Globe and Mail)

Breastfeeding mom's 'bad day at the mall' prompts a 'nurse-in' Add to ...

Shannon Smith is no crusader for women's rights. She's just "a mom who had a really bad day at the mall."

The 36-year-old recently found herself on the verge of tears, feeling vulnerable and humiliated, when a clerk at the Orchestra children's clothing store told her to stop breastfeeding her five-month-old daughter.

On Jan. 19, 1996, a group of Montreal women staged a "nurse-in" at a mall to assert their right to breastfeed publicly. Now, 15 years later Ms. Smith's ordeal has touched off a flurry of commentary, and dozens have signed up for another public demonstration - also on Jan. 19 - at the Orchestra store in Montreal's Complexe des Ailes.

"It's absurd. In 2011, this should not be an issue. Breastfeeding is perfectly normal, natural behaviour," Ms. Smith said.

When the store clerk arrived to tell Ms. Smith and another breastfeeding woman "you can't do that," she protested it was her right but, feeling uncomfortable, she left. She said she overheard employees saying she should have been in the mall's dedicated breastfeeding room - a space she uses and enjoys, but feels she shouldn't be confined to.

Orchestra and its parent company, based in France, declined to comment.

A mother of three and a web developer, Ms. Smith took to the internet to vent her indignation and quickly drew more support than she could have imagined, from committed "lactivists" to everyday moms. A blog she launched to describe her experience garnered 1,500 hits its first day, and 4,200 by Sunday afternoon.

"I have three kids and I've breastfed them all, and I've never actually had anyone come up to me and make a negative comment," she said.

Though the health and social benefits of breastfeeding are well-documented, some detractors argue it should be done in private, where it cannot cause offence. Ms. Smith said she worries that "a lot of mothers are discouraged from nursing because they worry about how people are going to treat them in public."

One participant at the 1996 "nurse-in" told a newspaper at the time: "It's outrageous that anybody can complain about a child breastfeeding anywhere." But in 2007, a Pickering mother complained to the Ontario Human Rights Commission when she was asked to leave the pool deck of the Scarborough YMCA, and in 2006, a New Mexico woman protested after she was forced off a Delta Airlines flight for breastfeeding.

The law seems to back Ms. Smith. A breastfeeding mother who was asked to leave a furniture store won a 2005 discrimination case at the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled the store's actions were a form of sex discrimination and awarded $1,000 in damages.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms broadly prohibits discrimination based on sex, but only Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia have spelled out a woman's right to breastfeed in public. Ontario's Human Rights Commission approved its "policy on discrimination because of pregnancy and breastfeeding" in 2008, while a British Columbia policy says women can nurse "in a public area," and "it is discriminatory to ask them to cover up or breastfeed somewhere else." Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has a policy stating "that women cannot be told or made to feel compelled to move" to breastfeed.

Jack Newman, founder of the Toronto-based Newman Breastfeeding Clinic and Institute, argues clearer laws would help mothers feel free to choose how to nurse their children, an important decision because of radical differences in the biochemistry of breast milk and baby formulas.

"You could, without too much exaggeration, say they are as different as beer is from cow's milk," he said.

Dr. Newman favours wording that a woman may breastfeed "anywhere she has a legal right to be" to eliminate confusion about which spaces are public.

Ms. Smith has written to Orchestra demanding an apology and a written store policy allowing breastfeeding, and launched a complaint with Quebec's Human Rights Commission.

But it was another woman, Genevieve Coulombe, who organized the coming "nurse-in." A mother of six from Montreal's South Shore, she learned of Ms. Smith's story on Facebook. Ms Coulombe felt online calls to boycott Orchestre would not draw enough attention to the issue.

"I said, no, we should do something else - we should all go there and nurse our babies," she said, and created a Facebook invitation to the Jan. 19 event. She has nearly 100 confirmed guests, and another 100 who may attend. That she chose the same date as the 1996 nurse-in was a coincidence, she said.

Editor's Note: This online article has been updated from a previous version to include the fact that The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission also has a policy affiriming the right to breastfeed in public.

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