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Political fault lines divide opinion on breastfeeding in Canada, U.S.

Even in the 21st century, Canadians and Americans continue to be exposed to news stories featuring women who were asked to “abandon the premises” or “cover up” when they were breastfeeding a baby.

Even in the 21st century, Canadians and Americans continue to be exposed to news stories featuring women who were asked to “abandon the premises” or “cover up” when they were breastfeeding a baby.

In Canada, the ability for women to breastfeed in public is set out in Section 15 of the  Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For the Supreme Court of Canada, asking a woman who breastfeeds to “leave” or to “conceal” is a form of discrimination. In several provinces, Human Rights Commissions have drafted and issued documents to outline this policy.

The rules are pretty clear south of the border as well, where all 50 states have passed legislation designed to allow women the opportunity to breastfeed anywhere they wish. The last states to enshrine this regulation were Utah and Idaho, in 2018.

The guidelines are well-defined in both countries, yet we continue to realize that not everyone is respecting them. Last month, in Williams Lake, British Columbia, a woman was asked twice by a lifeguard to get out of the local pool if she intended to continue breastfeeding her child. Late last year, a woman at a grocery store in Nepean, Ontario, was urged to breastfeed her baby in a washroom, out of public view. In 2010, a transit driver in Victoria requested a breastfeeding mom to “cover up” after boarding the vehicle.

Research Co. asked Canadians and Americans if women should have the right to breastfeed in four different public spaces. The results show that adults in both countries overwhelmingly support this right, but also outline pockets of discontent that are clearly defined along ideological lines.

In Canada, more than seven in 10 respondents to the survey said women should have the right to breastfeed a baby in a park (82%), a shopping mall (78%), a restaurant (74%) and a public transit vehicle (71%).

On a regional basis, there is consistency among Canadian provinces. The average level of support for breastfeeding in these four public spaces ranges from a low of 74% in Alberta and Ontario, to 76% in Quebec and British Columbia, to 81% in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and to 83% in Atlantic Canada.

The numbers are fairly uniform across genders when it comes to supporting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. Canadians aged 35 to 54 are more likely to be apprehensive about the practice happening in shopping malls (18%) and parks (16%), while those aged 55 and over are more anxious about breastfeeding in public transit vehicles (24%) and restaurants (22%).

The biggest differences are not based on gender, age or region, but in political leanings. Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party or the New Democratic Party in last year’s federal election are significantly more likely to endorse breastfeeding in public (at an average of 80% for each party) than those who cast ballots for Conservative Party candidates (70%). On average, three in 10 Conservatives in Canada are not content with existing guidelines.

In the United States, the numbers are slightly lower than in Canada at the national level, but still show a majority of residents endorsing a woman’s right to breastfeed in a park (74%), a shopping mall (71%), a public transit vehicle (68%) and a restaurant (65%).

The gender gap among U.S. respondents is a bit more pronounced when it comes to breastfeeding in a shopping mall, with 74% of women supporting this right compared to 67% of men.

On average, Americans who reside in the Northeast and the Midwest are more supportive of breastfeeding in these four public spaces (71% on average for each) than those who live in the West (69%) or the South (68%).

As is the case in Canada, political ideology is the key differentiator in the United States. While 73% of respondents who describe themselves as Democrats are supportive of breastfeeding in public, the proportion falls to 69% among Independents and 66% among Republicans.

The survey demonstrates that most Canadians and Americans have no qualms about women breastfeeding in public. The resistance that is observed in the cases that have warranted media coverage may be connected to ideology and morality, as well as wilful ignorance of standards and procedures from those who instigated the confrontations in the first place.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.


Results are based on an online study conducted February 7–9, 2020, among 1,000 Canadian adults, and an online study conducted February 6–8, 2020, among 1,000 U.S. adults. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian and U.S. census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for each study, 19 times out of 20.