Canada has a tangle of confusing and inconsistently-enforced nudity laws.
Strictly speaking, s. 174 of Canada’s Criminal Code forbids nudity in public places or on private property that is exposed to public view “without a lawful excuse.”
This is a summary conviction offence, meaning it’s a less serious type of crime. It’s punishable by six months in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both.
For legal purposes, being nude doesn’t necessarily mean being naked. The code defines “nudity” as being “so clad as to offend against public decency or order,” which isn’t completely clear. It does, however, appear to preclude a defence where an otherwise naked person could argue they weren’t legally “nude” because they were wearing socks.
The law doesn’t provide definitions of what’s indecent, so it’s left to judges to decide. Section 173 of the code discusses indecent acts, but remains lean on examples or definitions. The only specific act mentioned in s. 173 is when a person “for a sexual purpose, exposes his or her genital organs to a person who is under the age of 16 years.”
Cases revolving around definitions of nudity and “lawful excuse” have gone as high as the Supreme Court of Canada.
Generally speaking, Canadian courts are lenient on public nudity as long as it’s non-sexual and not harassing anyone.
Toplessness and nude sunbathing convictions have been overturned in Ontario and British Columbia, respectively.
In the Ontario case, a 19-year-old was arrested and convicted for walking topless in public, but the province’s Court of Appeal overturned it. In its decision, the court noted that her act was not done for sexual gratification and overall did no harm to the community.
In B.C., a 1971 Supreme Court case found that “nude sunbathing is not of sufficient moral turpitude to support a charge for doing an indecent act.”
A 1978 skinny-dipping conviction was also quashed in Saskatchewan, after three men were spotted swimming nude at a secluded lake. The court said it would not be an offence to swim nude in an isolated spot even if the swimmer “misjudged the loneliness of the place.”
The public nudity section is one of the few areas of the Criminal Code that requires the attorney general’s consent to lay a charge, implying a certain grey area around what constitutes illegal nudity. According to the government’s Public Prosecution Service, the attorney general’s consent is needed for two reasons: to avoid the specific harm that could result from prosecuting an innocent person; and to avoid the general harm resulting from prosecuting a case that isn’t in the public interest.
Criminal Code and public nudity:
Section 173: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/section-173.html
Section 174: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/section-174.html