As the temperature has risen in Ontario this summer, so hast the heat surrounding the topless question.

The province has been regularly treated – or subjected – to prominent media coverage of incidents and controversies on the issue since the weather warmed up following an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling last December. The ruling said it’s okay for men or women to walk, run, swim or suntan bare from the waist up. In stating that, the three-member court overturned a lower court conviction of Guelph resident Gwen Jacob, who had been charged in 1991 with committing an indecent act after taking off her shirt and walking around city streets.

Women have been spotted topless at swimming pools, on beaches, mowing lawns or walking along the street. Prostitutes, strippers and so-called squeegee-kids have also been seen exercising their newly-won rights.

Residents looking to leadership from the provincial government have been disappointed. “The law is the law,” said Premier Mike Harris. “The judge has ruled. We abide by the law of the land.”

Harris added he would like to see a law limit the right of women to go topless, but noted that it is a federal matter that can’t be controlled by the province.

The so-called experts meanwhile, are busy offering their versions of the “shed-your-inhibitions-and-do-what-comes-naturally” philosophy. “There’s nothing wrong with nudity and it’s very accepted, and expected, in a lot of cultures, but not ours,” says Burlington, Ont., social worker Susan Jewett.

Some days, letters to the editor in Ontario daily newspapers have been dominated by writers addressing the topless debate. The Toronto Sun newspaper has been having a field day with regular photos of topless women covered only by black lines in strategic places.

Much of the debate has had an inane flavor to it. Events in Hamilton are typical of those in the rest of the province.

Hamilton’s park officials, for example, were sent into a tizzy after a Hamilton woman took a bare-breasted dip a civic pool earlier this summer. Although the woman wasn’t charged with anything, recreation officials have been scrambling for a way to deal with the issue.

The Hamilton-Wentworth Police department says it has stopped laying charges against topless women because of the court ruling. “We’re not condoning nudity, but our hands are tied on this one,” said Staff Sgt. Bryan Barker.

At the grassroots level, citizens have been falling into either the topless-rights or “I have a right not to see this” camps.

“There is much misinformation being promulgated, often in fear and loathing,” says Paul Rapoport, a McMaster University music professor and president of the Topfree Equal Rights Association, which he says “was founded to combat this kind of thinking and to raise money for women who are unjustly treated in exercising their equal rights to go topfree.”

“It’s up to the woman herself and what you think about it doesn’t matter,” says Hamilton resident Anya Wassenberg. “Whether anyone likes it or not, we supposedly live in a free society and things like good taste just can’t be legislated … The ogling and disruption will eventually end.”

But other Hamilton-area residents virulently disagree.

“All I can see is a fast deterioration of human morals and self-respect, which is going to lead to many repercussions,” says Freda Toles. “No one can convince me that bare breasts are not sexual.”

But while some are content to bluster hot air on the issue, others are doing something about it.

Eva Filinski of Hamilton, a sales clerk and mother of two, has started a Keep It Kovered organization in an attempt to combat the topless trend.

“There is a time and place for everything,” she says. “It is offensive to many of us even to think of being subjected to this type of in-your-face exhibitionism … Are we going to let a small minority tear away at the moral fibre of this province?”

In the Kitchener-Waterloo area, 53-year-old Erika Kubassek heads up the Moral Support Movement, which has been pressuring the Ontario government to ban toplessness.

Cathy Francavilla and Carol Faraone, two Toronto sisters, both with three children, concur. The two women, who attend Prayer Palace Church in Toronto, launched an official petition drive in June directed at the federal Parliament in support of a ban on toplessness. So far, they’ve collected 40,000 signatures.

“We’re asking that the Criminal Code be amended to state that baring breasts in public is an indecent act,” Francavilla said. “We also want municipalities to have the authority to fine women baring their breasts.”

The sisters planned a rally for August 10 at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto and were hoping to have several MPs in attendance.

Bill Johnstone, a spokesman for the Hamilton chapter of Canadians for Positive Community Standards, says although his group has yet to become active on the issue, he believes petitioning the federal government to move on toplessness is a lost cause.

“Our best hope is provincially allowing municipalities the opportunity to pass bylaws controlling (toplessness) in public places,” he says. “You’d get a better response from the Conservative government in Ontario than the Liberal government in Ottawa.”

“People who don’t seem to have any brains between their ears are controlling the show,” he added. “What’s wrong with people? Isn’t there any sense of decency?”