Despite self-conceptions, Canada is far from the best when it comes to children’s rights. A 2020 UNICEF report card measuring the well-being of children and youth in wealthy countries ranked Canada 30th out of 38 nations.
And unbeknownst to many, Canada has an exemption in their Criminal Code, Section 43, that permits parents to hit their children. Read that again — Canada, a supposed bastion for human rights, permits parental violence against children.
Admittedly, that violence is constrained; the use of force by a parent, teacher, or other individual acting in a comparable role is permitted “if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances,” but this exemption nonetheless enables continued violence against the most vulnerable young people. Children’s rights advocates believe there is no such thing as “reasonable” use of force against children.
In 1991, Canada became party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified treaty on human rights in history. It contains multiple commitments that Canada, as a duty-bearer, is required to fulfil on behalf of children — including protection from violence.
Over the last 30 years, Canada has done a lot on behalf of children. Legal measures have been created and reinforced, but Section 43 of the Criminal Code remains. The failure to protect children from violence has been cited by the UN, and highlighted time and again by children’s rights and protection advocates across Canada. And yet, the exemption persists.
Physical punishment has never been shown to have any beneficial effects. It has, however, been demonstrated to negatively impact children’s mental health, behavior, relationships and brain development. With 66 countries around the world having already prohibited the physical punishment of children, Canada has fallen behind as other countries act to protect children and their rights.
Repealing Section 43 is not about ideology or judging parents’ disciplinary techniques. It is about ensuring the laws are evidence-based, rights-affirming and aligned with the international obligations to children. It is about protecting children from preventable violence.
Banning physical punishment against children is also essential to protecting and promoting the human rights of other protected groups. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s sixth Call to Action is the repeal of Section 43 because of the disproportionate impact permitting violence against children has on Indigenous children and young people. LGBTQ2+ human rights advocates know young people whose parents literally sought to “beat the gay” out of them, or who opted to punish gender-nonconforming behavior in their children through physical punishment. This is a children’s rights issue — but it’s an LGBTQ2+ and Indigenous rights issue too.
Canadian citizens have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable. Every generation inevitably grows up processing the childhood experiences and traumas. Imagine if the next generation of children in Canada grew up without state-permitted violence by parents, teachers and other caregivers? Imagine if the next generation of kids grew up knowing that their country cared enough about them to protect all of them from this kind of violence?
If Canada wants to be a bastion of human rights and an example to the world, the country has to start by protecting the most vulnerable, to repeal Section 43 and protect children from all forms of violence.
Source: Fae Johnstone, Toronto Star