Spoiling a country

International | Canadian rod-sparers press their cause in the courts

Issue: "Federal Testing," Sept. 13, 1997

Is spanking a child "age discrimination"? The Canadian left is working to create the world's largest no-spanking zone, and to put in jail those who do not spare the rod.

Canadian police officers in September 1994 charged American David Peterson with assault for spanking his five-year-old daughter in a restaurant parking lot in London, Ontario. Ignoring her father's command, the girl had slammed a car door shut on the fingers of her two-year-old brother. So the resident of Warrenville, Ill., lifted the girl out of the car, put her over the trunk lid, and delivered several measured smacks with an open hand to her exposed behind.

London resident Marlene Timperio witnessed the entire incident. She approached Mr. Peterson in mid-spank and mistakenly informed him it was "against the law" to spank a child in Canada. After a brief, heated discussion, she called the police. When he left the restaurant a few minutes later, Mr. Peterson was arrested, charged with assault, strip-searched, and fingerprinted. He spent the night in a two-man cell.

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Mr. Peterson was acquitted the next spring in provincial court only because Section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code allows parents and teachers to use "reasonable" force to correct a child.

For two decades anti-spanking advocates have lobbied federal politicians to repeal Section 43, so far in vain. But now, backed by $80,000 in federal grants, a Toronto group is trying to have Section 43 struck down in court as "age discrimination." Pro-family groups worry that the courts will do what legislators have so far resisted-turn Canada into the largest no-spanking zone in the world.

The 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms forbids discrimination based on, among other things, gender, race, religion, and age. The Canadian federal government has a Court Challenges Program that funds "historically disadvantaged groups" seeking to test laws they believe violate the Charter. Gwen Landolt, a lawyer and National Vice President of REAL Women of Canada, a conservative, pro-family women's organization, says the program has been used almost exclusively to advance socially liberal causes, particularly homosexual rights.

Last year the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth, and the Law received $35,000 to study whether a case could be made that Section 43 constitutes age discrimination. Unsurprisingly, they concluded that it did and in August received another $45,000 to develop a case and argue it in the Federal Court of Ontario. More money would be needed to press the case another two levels to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Children are the only group in society that can be physically assaulted with impunity," director Sheena Scott told Canadian Press. "Adults need correction as well, but we don't go about hitting them."

Without Section 43, parents who spank their kids would have no legal defense when falsely accused of child abuse, points out James Sclater, Vice President of Public Policy for the Canadian arm of Focus on the Family. To those who would suggest this happens only rarely, "I could name at least 10 parents who have had to rely on this law," he says. "Some have had their children taken away for six months."

As Corinne Robertshaw, coordinator of the Repeal 43 Committee in Toronto, said in an interview last year, "If [Section 43] was repealed ... there'd be no need to determine whether hitting a child 10 times or five times or three times is reasonable. Hitting would always be an assault."

"It's a direct attack on the family," charges Mrs. Landolt. She says it is another attempt to undermine parental authority by having the state decide issues that should be decided in the home. Until now anti-spanking activists have relied on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified in 1991, to shame governments into acting. But, realizing that federal politicians are unwilling to risk voter wrath, anti-spanking activists have turned to Canada's unaccountable, politically appointed courts.

Whether or not the judges buy the argument that Section 43

is age discrimination "depends on what they had for breakfast that day," continues Mrs. Landolt. Mr. Sclater says the Supreme Court does sometimes look to the will of the government in such issues; so far the federal politicians have declined to take action. "However, being a somewhat activist court," he continues, "it could say, 'It's time we moved here.'"

And Canada has seen some astounding intrusions of the state into family authority. About two years ago, for example, British Columbia's provincial government passed the B.C. Infants Act. This document says that children of any age can, in consultation with a medical professional, decide on any medical procedure regardless of the wishes of the parents. "And when people protested," says Mr. Sclater, "the response was, 'Well, don't you trust doctors?'" c


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