Cornwall's topless policy — now the subject of a human rights complaint — could be seen as discriminatory, the city's mayor says.

In February an Eastern Ontario woman made a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, saying the city's rule that girls older than 10 must wear tops while swimming is prejudiced.

The city's mayor, Leslie O'Shaughnessy, said Tuesday the policy is an outdated one.

"It goes back to 1996, maybe even prior to 1996," he said. "I guess you could call it discriminatory and gender-based."

O'Shaughnessy said city council discussed how to handle the complaint during Monday night's council meeting.

"We will respond to the complaint and go from there," he stated. "That's all I can say at this time."

Leslie O'Shaughnessy

Cornwall mayor Leslie O'Shaughnessy says the city's current policy is that girls 'over the age of 10 must wear a top.' (City of Cornwall)

Unconstitutional because it 'applies to women and not men'

Cornwall's city solicitor should act carefully and promptly, said Sébastien Grammond, a human rights specialist at the University of Ottawa. 

"There's a good chance that (the complaint) will be successful," he added.

"It's discriminatory because it's a prohibition that applies to women and not men. It is unconstitutional for that reason."

Grammond said that if the case makes it all the way through the human rights tribunal, more organizations will be thrown under the microscope. 

"It means that (more) municipalities or hotels will have to change their policies."

In addition to the City of Cornwall, eight other respondents were named in the complaint, according to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. 

  • Sheraton Hotels in Ontario.
  • Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
  • Fairmont Château Laurier.
  • Quality Inn & Suites in Hawkesbury.
  • Four Seasons Hotels.
  • Calypso Theme Waterpark.
  • Best Western Parkway Inn.
  • A Ramada Hotel in Ottawa.

A spokesperson for the Château Laurier declined to comment while the file is still active. Calypso, Sheraton Hotels and Starwood Hotels did not respond to CBC News' request for an interview.

The tribunal has not set a hearing date yet and details of the complaint have not been made public.

No one forced to look

The battle over toplessness exploded in 1991 when teenaged Gwen Jacob removed her top in Guelph, Ont., during a hot July day. She was convicted of committing an indecent act and fined $75 after a mother complained about her young children seeing Jacob's chest. 

Five years later, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the conviction, concluding "no one who was offended was forced to continue looking at her."

It was considered a massive breakthrough in women's constitutional right to go topless as a man would.

Jacob's 1996 appeal was done under the criminal code, while the 2017 complaint is human-rights-based.