Canada's Original Think Tank

Second reading of Bill S-206, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (protection of children against standard child-rearing violence)

Second reading of Bill S-206, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (protection of children against standard child-rearing violence)

Second reading of Bill S-206, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (protection of children against standard child-rearing violence)

Second reading of Bill S-206, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (protection of children against standard child-rearing violence)


Published on 8 June 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Jim Munson

Hon. Jim Munson:

Honourable senators, I realize it’s late, but I have been preparing this speech and I think it’s important. I will agree to adjourn this item in the name of Senator Martin after I’ve spoken. It stands in her name.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, I know it’s late on a Thursday. I will not be here next week, and I’m concerned, as the clock winds down in June, that I will not get this on the record.

Honourable senators, I am speaking today to support Bill S-206, an act to repeal section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

As written, section 43 violates the basic human rights of children. It permits, in this day and age, physical punishment of children which leaves them dangerously exposed to a spectrum of violent treatment from a parent that remains legal unless we repeal this section of the Criminal Code.

Children in this country should have the same protection from physical assault as Canadian adults and children in many other countries. It is irrational that an outdated defence — over 125 years old — legalizes the use of force on children, when current research has overwhelmingly shown that physical punishment is both harmful and ineffective as discipline.

Honourable senators, there is no clear evidence of any benefit from the use of physical punishment on children. There is, however, strong evidence that physical punishment of children has both immediate and enduring negative outcomes. This has been extensively shown by the Canadian Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth developed by a coalition of six national organizations led by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, CHEO. Nearly 600 respected Canadian professional child care, health and education organizations have affirmed the research and call for the repeal of section 43.

Research has shown that physical punishment is largely ineffective at achieving its intent. Even if it results in immediate compliance, the effectiveness of that punishment is time-limited and the risk of the escalation of future physical punishment is high. The use of force does not significantly change the targeted behaviour, but it is significant in the sense that it is linked to worrisome and preventable harm, including physical injury, impaired relationships with parents, anti-social attitudes, aggressive behaviour, poorer cognitive development and mental health problems.

Childhood experience of physical punishment has long-lasting negative effects such as an increased likelihood of aggression, criminal behaviour and poorer adult mental health. Those who are physically punished as children are more likely to exhibit violent behaviour later in life toward their own children and intimate partners. They also show a greater tolerance for violence as an adult and can perceive seriously abusive behaviour as normal if it was part of their early personal experience.

Section 43 provides legal validation for this normalization and perpetuation of violence in our society.

In his speech on this bill, Senator Sinclair reminded us of a horrific chapter of our country’s history where “reasonable force” was dangerously interpreted. In Indian residential schools, children suffered unimaginable violence. Those children were not sufficiently protected from assault, and their horrifying experiences have an enduring impact on indigenous communities today.

The experiences at residential schools have shown, beyond any doubt, that using force to try and change a child’s behaviour simply does not work. It is cruel. Our country learned that lesson at a terrible cost, and we cannot forget it.

The Supreme Court of Canada has acknowledged that section 43 is too broad to protect children from physical violence. Their ruling in 2004 arbitrarily limited factors such as the type of assault and age of the child. According to the court’s criteria, a slap to the head is criminal, but a slap elsewhere is somehow corrective parenting. Hitting a child older than 12 or younger than 2 is criminal, but hitting a child of 4 is constructive. It is confusing, not to mention dangerous, for the Supreme Court to validate some types of violence and criminalize others based on when and where children can be assaulted.

These limits to section 43 send confused messages about physical assault and are completely inadequate to protect the rights and dignity of children.

Opponents of this bill have agreed that child abuse is abhorrent behaviour, but they have argued that section 43 allows reasonable discipline from a parent while still criminalizing serious physical assault.

However, their argument assumes that physical discipline of a child can be completely controlled and constructive. In most cases, the use of force on a child is not a rational response on the part of a parent but an emotional one. The more anger a parent feels in response to conflict with a child, the more likely it is that physical punishment will occur.

As a result, the physical force used on a child is often more forceful than intended and subject to dangerous escalation that is harmful to not only the child but also to the parent. Parents often feel intense guilt after using physical force on a child.

Research shows that the force used does not effectively correct a child’s behaviour but results in negative effects on both the short-term behaviour and long-term development of the child, and neither the parent nor the child benefit in any way from physical punishment. Instead, physical punishment impairs healthy child-parent relationships.

There is absolutely no reason to cling to the idea that forced used on a child can be permissible just because that is what we have known or allowed or grown up with, in circumstances that are awful, to be honest with you. It is irresponsible of us to say that because this violence can be called “punishment” and happens behind closed doors, who are we to interfere?

Parenting is personal. No one likes being told how to raise their children, but those sentiments fall woefully short of justifying the force allowed under section 43. Section 43 leaves children dangerously exposed to unjust and violent treatment from their parents. It permits force that should not be used by any parent.

Some are reluctant to act on this issue because they are hesitant to legislate people’s home lives, but when it comes to violence, the state can legislate an activity that takes place in a “home” setting. The state once turned a blind eye to the assault of women by their male partners. Spousal and intimate partner abuse is a crime. No matter where you are violent, even if the violence is perpetrated by your spouse in your own home, that violence is still a crime.

It is time for us to stop turning a blind eye to child abuse. Why do we not extend the same protection against violence, available to all adults in both public and private life, to children?

Children are vulnerable members of our society. Those who oppose this bill are afraid that repealing section 43 would infringe on a parent’s so-called right to use force to discipline a child. But violence is not a parental right. Violence in the guise of discipline is still violence. Parents are fully capable of protecting, educating and correcting their children with non-violent, positive parenting techniques.

But it is a child’s right to live free from all forms of violence, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canada, if you can believe it, is behind other countries that have prohibited physical punishment in all forms and settings. Fifty-two countries prohibited all physical punishment of children and 54 more have committed to doing so.

Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 and committed itself to protect children from all forms of violence, act in the best interests of children, and protect the child from degrading treatment or punishment.

We have not kept our promise to put into place:

. . . all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse . . .

Our inaction has caused the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to increasingly urge Canada to repeal of section 43.

In closing, honourable senators, the repeal of section 43 is long overdue. It is inconsistent with the commitment our country has made to protect the basic human rights of children. It is also contrary to Canadian values, global attitudes and extensive research.

Honourable senators, we have been talking about this issue for a long time. It is our duty to ensure that Canadian children finally receive full legal protection from assault. So I would encourage you to support this bill at second reading so that we can send it to committee and give it the proper study it deserves.