How southwestern Ontario is leading the way for free menstrual products in public bathrooms

London was Canada’s first municipality to give away tampons and pads in city-owned facilities. Now, Sarnia is following suit
By Mary Baxter - Published on Dec 18, 2019
Advocates say that offering menstrual products at no cost in public facilities is a matter of equity. (iStock.com/dstaerk)

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Rachel Ettinger was out walking the dog with her mother, Sharon, the first time she got her period. She was “lucky,” she says: her mother, a health professional, thoroughly explained the details and supplied the sixth-grader with sanitary pads. 

Despite the support, Ettinger found her menstruation cycle stressful. She constantly worried about changing pads and tampons, not wanting to be caught off guard on the basketball court or riding her horse. “My life was centered around my period for so long because I was so nervous,” she says.

Ettinger is now 28, and those early experiences have stuck with her. That’s why, two years ago, the London radio host became involved in a local push to promote free access to menstrual products. The effort was successful — in April, city council voted in favour of offering the items at no cost in public washrooms, making London the first municipality in Canada to do so.

For Ettinger, it’s an equity issue. London has the third-highest child-poverty rate in Canada. Not having access to the products, she says, “affects individuals and their lives and their opportunities.” Research suggests the problem is widespread. According to the Canadian Public Health Association, 70 per cent of women in Canada have missed school or work because of their period.

London was the first municipality to sign-on, but the movement is reaching other governments and institutions. Several public-school boards have embraced the concept, including in Toronto, the Thames Valley, Lambton-Kent, and Waterloo Region. The St. Clair Catholic District School Board, which covers Lambton County and Chatham-Kent, has as well.

The products are appearing in post-secondary educational facilities, too, championed by management, as in the case of Lambton College, or by student councils and unions, such as at Western University and Fanshawe College.  

Most recently, Sarnia city council confirmed, during budget deliberations this month, its support for a six-month pilot at nine publicly owned sites (the pilot is scheduled to begin in January). Not all Sarnia councillors, however, were in favour: Margaret Bird says she objected to the approach when Michelle Parks, a local youth-outreach worker, first presented the idea in May.

To make sure people don’t take advantage of the program, Bird suggests offering free menstrual products in the city’s homeless shelter instead. That way, you can make “sure that people who needed them got them,” she says. “I don’t think people who’ve got plenty of money and can afford all these necessities — they’re not going to go to the Inn of the Good Shepherd [a shelter in Sarnia] or anywhere else and ask for freebies when they know they can well afford them.”

Setting a precedent is another of her concerns: “If you’re going to provide that product, then why not Depends — and why not all kinds of other things that people need? I mean, where does it end?”

But most of all, she objects to assigning money to the $28,600 pilot. “We’ve got so many things right now — we’ve got a really serious situation with all our shoreline here.” Such spending “doesn’t sit well with the public,” she says.

Uncertainties about cost, as well as community pushback, prompted Cambridge city council to reject a pilot proposal in October, says Kathryn McGarry, the city’s mayor. Some councillors and residents expressed concern that people would take more than they needed, leaving the city on the hook for expenses. “We heard issues like that,” she says. She says others argued that it is a public-health issue, and should fall under the jurisdiction of Waterloo Public Health.

Yet there’s no guarantee of support at that level, as Hamilton learned when a pilot was proposed in May to the city’s board of health. The board rejected the proposal in a vote of eight to seven, largely because of concerns about funding. (A city report projected it would cost more than $11 million to supply all of the city’s female population aged 12 to 49 with their annual needs for menstrual products.)

Estimating how much such a program will cost can be difficult, in part because it’s a new movement in Ontario. In London, for instance, products have been offered in facilities such as community centres, arenas, and city hall only since late September. It’s too early to project an annual cost, says Lynn Loubert, division manager of aquatics and arenas. “We bought cases of the product to stock the facility at [the] start, so I really don’t have a good idea as to what this is going to cost at this point.”

Matthew Sereda, the equity and inclusive education learning coordinator at Thames Valley District School Board, says the board anticipates it will cost $30,000 to roll out the program for female and all-gender washrooms across the board’s 26 secondary schools for the 2019-20 school year. But that amount includes an initial investment in dispensers.

Meanwhile, advocates continue to promote their cause. Back in Cambridge, an informal pilot began shortly after the vote in the form of baskets of menstrual products in city hall’s women’s washrooms. An anonymous donor is supplying the product, McGarry says.

Parks, the youth worker in Sarnia, intends to broach the topic with Lambton County in the new year. She dismisses Bird’s objections: “You are paying for the cost of toilet paper; you are paying for the cost of paper towels and the cost of soap — so, you know, this is just as important to have in a washroom as those products.”

Ettinger, who promoted the idea not only in London but also in Cambridge and is now setting her sights on Kitchener-Waterloo, remains confident the issue will eventually gain widespread acceptance.

“It doesn’t matter what the budget is, because there needs to be a way to make this happen because it’s an equity issue,” she says. “We can’t control how we were born … we either menstruate or we don’t, and so menstruation shouldn’t be looked at as something that’s against us or [we should be] penalized for.”

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