TORONTO, APRIL 26 -- For a few dozen hours this week, Canada threatened to supplant Singapore as the locus of world debate over corporal punishment and to eclipse even its own substantial record for rationality and coolheadedness. Then it thought better of the idea.
At issue -- and the source of headlines and jaw-flapping across Canada -- was the case of an American tourist, David Peterson, who was caught red-handed in a Canadian parking lot last fall as he gave a spanking to his 5-year-old daughter.
An outraged Canadian witness called 911 and confronted the overwrought father with the news that it is against the law to spank in Canada.
It isn't, exactly. But London, Ontario, police charged Peterson with assault, and he spent a night in jail. He returned voluntarily this week, according to news reports, to stand trial and clear his name. In a not-guilty verdict rendered today, Ontario provincial Judge John Menzies agreed that the father's punishment fit the daughter's crime and therefore met Canada's legal tests of appropriate discipline.
Peterson, a 39-year-old self-employed electronics specialist from Warrenville, Ill., told a parent's story of extraordinary provocation:
The Petersons were returning from a visit to Niagara Falls over the Labor Day weekend and stopped in London for a meal. During the lunch hour, Peterson led his daughter, Rachel, and 2-year-old son, William, to the restaurant parking lot to retrieve a birthday card and gift for their mother, Paula Peterson.
As Peterson rummaged in the front of the car, Rachel and William began fighting in the back seat, and Rachel pushed her little brother out the rear door onto the asphalt. As she began to close the door on her smaller sibling, Peterson testified, he warned her to watch for William's fingers. She ignored the warning, he said, and proceeded to do exactly what her father had feared.
William wailed in pain, the testimony continued, as his father struggled with an automatic door to free his son's trapped digits.
Peterson testified that he first attempted to spank Rachel inside the car, but that she resisted. So he took her outside, where--upping the punishment to a bare-bottomed thrashing because of her defiance--he pulled down her pants and underwear and spanked her "very hard" four to six times, he said; the witness put the number at eight or more times.
Peterson and his wife, Paula, said subsequently that they seldom used spanking and could recall doing so only once before with Rachel. A pediatrician who examined Rachel just after the parking lot incident testified that she found no evidence of bruising or tenderness on the little girl's hindquarters.
The Peterson case generated a great deal of talk -- some of it from politicians -- about spanking as a disciplinary tool.
One member of Canada's Parliament, Svend Robinson, introduced a bill that would have curtailed discretionary paddling powers here, while another, Myron Thompson, defended the current law.
Thompson told reporters in Ottawa that he had paddled his children a few times, "when they needed it," adding, "They're all grown up now, and they still love me."
See Repeal Law that Lets Parents Spank Kids, By Michele Landsberg, Toronto Star, May 20, 1995.