Honestly - if you were angry with your 5-year-old daughter's misbehavior, would you deal her four hard blows, throw her over the trunk of the car, yank down her underpants in full public view, and then hit her hard, eight times, on her bare buttocks while she screamed?
That's what U.S. tourist David Peterson did in London, Ont., last year. A witness reported him to the police, who held him overnight. But a judge recently acquitted him, noting that "A judge applies the law. Parliament makes the law."
Too true. So if you are not one of the many vociferous callers to talk shows who applauded and rejoiced at Peterson's acquittal, take a moment now to think about the law. Section 43 of Canada's Criminal Code says that "a 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 . . . if the force does not exceed what is reasonable."
Well, just what is reasonable? Over the years, and right up to the present day, courts have ruled that hitting with straps, belts, sticks, extension cords and rulers is reasonable; that beatings causing bruises, welts, abrasions, swelling, nosebleeds and chipped teeth are reasonable; that kicks or blows - even one that left the imprint of an 8-year-old boy's sweater on his skin - are reasonable. When I listened to a discussion of the London spanking decision on CBC's Radio Noon, I was riveted to hear parents speak of the need for corporal punishment to "instill respect" for authority. My experience of human nature suggests that violence and the threat of violence instill contempt, fear, hatred of authority and a surly conviction that "might is right." "Respect" is merely the grim code word used by authoritarians; perhaps they really can't tell the difference between true respect and sullen, inwardly mutinous compliance.
But most of us can. Most of us will blush to admit that in the years of bringing up children we occasionally swatted the bottom of a toddler who sprinted into traffic or otherwise made us momentarily frantic. Most of us were ashamed of our lapse and tried not to repeat it. When we think about Section 43, and the way it explicitly justifies the use of violence, let's remember that it's not talking about the occasional swatter. Section 43 is, on the contrary, the shelter and refuge of the determined violent assailant.
Corinne Robertshaw is a retired lawyer and coordinator of the Repeal 43 Committee. "A University of Toronto study last year reported that 'discipline' was involved in 85 per cent of substantiated reports of physical child abuser" she told me, "and there were 5,000 such cases in Ontario in 1993."
This is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, as we know to our sorrow from the very low rate of reporting of wife assault, which is widely agreed to be a crime.
People who sympathized with David Peterson, the London spanker, may be defensive; they're average parents who are ashamed of their occasional loss of control and therefore rationalize that spanking is normal and no one's business. But wake up: there is a hard core of aggressive parents in our midst who believe in their right to inflict frequent pain and humiliation on their children, in the name of "discipline."
It is to reach and educate such people that the Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse, among many other organizations, believes in repealing Section 43. And no, that wouldn't mean police would be snooping into everyone's living room. "The well- established rule is that the law does not take account of trifles," points out Robertshaw. The serious hitters who are charged may rely, like other citizens, on sections of the code which allow for reasonable force in cases of necessity, emergency or self-defence.
This coming week, Canada will appear before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva. According to committee member Dr. Marta Pais of Portugal, Canada's Section 43 is quite clearly in contravention of the U.N.'s Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory.
When you're finished with gun control, Allan Rock, bring us into line with civilized nations. Repeal Section 43.