Corporal punishment has been banished from prisons and schools. Should it be outlawed within our families as well?
Consider the implications for a loving mother who hears a squeal of brakes, looks up and is horrified to see that her little boy has chased a ball into a busy street. Regardless of her own safety, she rushes after the child, drags him to safety and spanks him, while tearfully admonishing, "How many times have I warned you not to run in front of cars. Never, ever do that again. You could have been killed."
Should that mother be liable to prosecution for common assault? Under current Canadian law, that's inconceivable. Section 43 of the Criminal Code provides that, "Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances."
However, the Quebec Human Rights Commission, children's aid societies and a coalition called the Section 43 Repeal Committee are lobbying to have Section 43 abolished. On Monday, the London District Catholic school board unanimously voted to add its voice to the mounting clamour. "This is an important step forward," said Trustee Paul Whitehead, "and very much in keeping with our tradition."
Is that right? Since when has it been a tradition of the Roman Catholic school system to insist that a parent has no right to use reasonable force to discipline a child?
John Liston, executive director of the Children's Aid Society of London and Middlesex, points out that repeal of Section 43 would not suddenly transform spanking a child into a criminal offence. "We recommend raising a child without using physical force," he advises. "But this does not preclude someone doing that. It just says there won't be a loophole there if someone goes overboard."
There is no such loophole. Section 43 clearly prohibits corporal punishment of a child that exceeds, "what is reasonable under the circumstances."
Opponents of Section 43 cite some egregious court cases such as the one involving a Manitoba stepfather who was found not to have contravened the law, although he had kicked a child down the stairs and pulled a clump of hair out of his head. This line of argument is irrelevant. If every bizarre judicial ruling warranted the repeal of a law, there would soon be no provisions left in the criminal code.
The London District Catholic school board can be proud of having been the first in Ontario to abolish use of the strap and the Children's Aid Society has good reason to forbid its foster parents from using corporal punishment. But for Parliament to outlaw spanking altogether would be folly.
Yet a blanket prohibition on spanking is the ultimate aim of militants within the Section 43 Repeal Committee. Egged on by anti-family activists within the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, they insist that Canada should emulate Sweden, which first abolished a law that sanctioned the physical discipline of children in 1966 and followed up in 1979 by becoming the first country in the world to prohibit all corporal punishment of children.
Proponents of a legal ban on spanking argue that children's aid societies and the police could be counted upon not to bring charges against an overwrought mother who spanks her child for running in front of a car. Who, though, is na´ve enough to believe that social workers and police officers can be trusted always to act reasonably?
Laws like Section 43 are essential to protect the natural rights of parents within the family. No agent of the state in a democracy should have authority to interfere with the exercise of authority by parents over their own children, except in clear cases of unambiguous child abuse.
In the end, though, public debate over this issue seems futile. With funding from the Chretien government, a Toronto-based lobby, Justice for Children and Youth, is petitioning the courts to quash Section 43 on the pretence that the law violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Will the courts go along with this circumvention of the democratic process? That's all too likely. Since the Charter came into effect, our all-wise solons on the Supreme Court of Canada have had no compunction about imposing their policies from the bench instead of upholding the law as duly enacted by elected representatives of the people.