Time to spare the rod
Despite U.N. pleas to change, our Criminal Code still permits violence against children by adults in the name of correction

Toronto Star, November 20, 2003

Today is National Child Day. Our federal government has designated Nov. 20 to commemorate the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Canada was a leading promoter of the convention and ratified it in 1991.

Our support for this U.N. initiative makes me proud.

But each year as this day approaches, I think about whether we actually live up to our obligations as a signatory and just how willing we are to honour this commitment to our children, especially when it concerns the issue of corporal punishment.

Article 19 of the convention obliges signatories to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence.

But our Criminal Code contains a section that permits physical violence against children by parents and teachers in the name of correction. It is section 43.

The United Nations has established a committee to monitor the progress made by countries that have ratified the convention. Twice, Canada has been asked by the committee to remove this section of the code. The U.N. first asked in 1995 and again in October of this year.

But we have not done so. And the committee has expressed its "deep regret" at this lack of action.

Instead of upholding the right of children to protection from assault, our government has chosen to support this licence to hit them.

This despite evidence that corporal punishment has no benefit, and much evidence that it is harmful. And moreover, in spite of urging by more than 70 Canadian organizations to repeal this 19th-century section of the Criminal Code. This does not make me proud.

The federal government seems unwilling to face the wrath of groups who not only believe that parents should have the right to strike their children, but that they actually have an obligation to do so.

So, child advocates have turned to the courts to address this issue, maintaining that section 43 is unconstitutional and violates a child's basic right to security and equal protection of the law.

The government has fought this challenge in the Ontario courts.

It is now before the Supreme Court of Canada and a ruling is expected any day.

Whatever the results of the case, it is apparent that Canadian attitudes about corporal punishment are changing.

This makes me hopeful.

A recent survey by Decima Research for Toronto's Public Health Department found that 69 per cent of respondents believe teachers should not be allowed to physically punish children and 51 per cent believe parents should not be allowed to use physical punishment as a disciplinary measure.

This opinion increases to 60 per cent if guidelines are in place to prevent prosecution for "mild spanking."

What is even more encouraging is that support for ending corporal punishment of children is higher among people age 18 to 34, and among women, usually the primary caregivers of children.

Support for the idea of ending corporal punishment increases if people can be assured that research shows it has harmful effects, and can be a precursor to child abuse.

So Canadians generally want to do the best for children. But it is not always clear to them what the best is. Many Canadians equate discipline with physical punishment and cannot see other, positive ways to help children "behave."

That is why it is so important to remove legal support for corporal punishment as a means of discipline and educate parents and care givers in effective and humane methods of childrearing.

It is ironic that the federal government is at odds with itself on this issue. While the Department of Health discourages corporal punishment, pointing out that it is not effective and in fact harmful, the justice department maintains that section 43 is necessary and, in fact, rightful.

This makes me question the government's sincerity.

Twelve nations have so far banned corporal punishment of children. Sweden was the first to do so. Iceland the most recent. These countries recognize that children are as worthy of protection from assault as are adults.

Canadian children deserve no less.

I look forward to the day when Nov. 20 can be a true celebration of children and when Canada is once again recognized as a leader on issues of human rights including the rights of children our most precious and vulnerable citizens.

Ruth Miller is a member of the Repeal 43 Committee, which is dedicated to repealing the section of the Criminal Code dealing with corporal punishment for children. She is also a children's author who worked for 20 years for Toronto Public Health. www.repeal43.org

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