British Columbia

Being topless in public is legal, B.C. woman reminds others after police encounter

Susan Rowbottom of Kelowna, B.C., says she was sunbathing topless on a local beach when a police officer told her to cover up even though that's not the law in the province.

Susan Rowbottom says she was sunbathing topless when an officer told her to cover up

Susan Rowbottom from Kelowna, B.C., says she was told by a police officer to cover up when she was sunbathing topless at a local beach. (Susan Rowbottom )

If you're topless in any part of British Columbia and a police officer tells you to put a shirt on, you don't have to obey.

That's the message a Kelowna woman wants to deliver to anyone who doesn't realize being topless in B.C. is legal.

Susan Rowbottom says she was at a local beach last week, sunbathing without a top on, when an RCMP officer approached her and told her to cover up. Rowbottom said she did as she was told at the time, though she was fairly certain it was legal for both men and women to be bare-chested in public.

After confirming with city staff and the local RCMP detachment, Rowbottom said her understanding of the law was correct.

"Hopefully this comes to the RCMP's attention that they can't enforce laws that don't exist," she told CBC's Radio West.

In 1996, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted women in that province the right to bare their breasts in public after overturning the earlier conviction of Gwen Jacobs. Jacobs was initially found guilty of committing an indecent act, but the appeal court later ruled that "there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing" about her decision to take off her shirt in public.

In 2000, the B.C. Supreme Court also stood behind the right of women to bare their breasts. Linda Meyer had been charged with violating a clothing bylaw after showing up topless at a city-run pool, but the judge in the case wrote that there was no evidence to support "the view that the parks could not operate in orderly fashion if a female were to bare her breasts in a circumstance that did not offend criminal laws of nudity." 

Kelowna RCMP Cpl. Joe Duncan says arrests for public nudity are rare, and usually only happen if someone is "doing something sexual," or if a convicted sex offender is naked near children or a school.

'Our society is changing'

Still, Duncan says that if a topless person is asked to put a shirt on because children or families nearby feel uncomfortable, he expects them to comply.

Rowbottom says there were no children around when she was at the beach last week, and no one had complained. However, if there had been a family feeling uneasy and wanting her to cover up, she would have done so out of respect.

Still, Rowbottom wants to normalize the baring of breasts in public.

"I think if men can be topless, women should be able to be topless," she said. "Our society is changing and evolving and I'd like to move forward with that."

Rowbottom's interview comes as three Kitchener, Ont., sisters are in the news for the same reason. Tameera, Nadia and Alysha Mohamed are planning to file a formal complaint after they say they were stopped by a police officer for cycling topless.

Listen to the audio: B.C. woman sets record straight on being topless in public


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