U of M prof slams corporal punishment in damning op-ed

Community health sciences professor calls for federal government to act on TRC recommendations, repeal ‘spanking law’

Photo by Tarek Afifi

University of Manitoba professor and activist Tracie Afifi is calling on the Canadian government to enact recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and close legal loopholes allowing the use of force when disciplining children.

In December 2015, the award-winning researcher and associate professor in the community health sciences department wrote an op-ed in Maclean’s opposing corporal punishment.

Her piece calls for the repeal of Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, a clause that creates a legal loophole for parents who enact physical disciplinary measures on their children that she dubbed the “spanking law.”

The TRC report outlines 94 recommendations to repair the relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal populations. One of the recommendations calls for the “spanking law” to be repealed. The federal Liberal government has committed to implementing the recommendations.

Citing a study that found support for a link between being spanked as a child and the emergence of mental health disorders in American adults, Afifi uses statistics to make her case.

Afifi cracks down on anecdotal evidence often used by spanking proponents and insists Canada ought to join other modern democracies in fully criminalizing any act of physical force on a child.

Afifi told the Manitoban she believes a repeal of Section 43 would result in a change in social norms regarding corporal punishment. She said her ultimate hope is for the existence of a positive style of discipline to become commonplace.

“The reality is that spanking a child is hitting a child,” she said. “Whether or not you want to label it as abuse, or spanking, or any other word – it’s still physical force that’s used on a child and we know from the science that using any kind of physical discipline on children puts them at risk for poor outcomes.”

However, not everyone takes the same stance as Afifi. Proponents of the current law describe attempts to repeal Section 43 as intrusive and characteristic of the “nanny state.”

This criticism is evident in comments Cheri Elliott, a spokesperson for Conservative MP and former justice minister Rob Nicholson, gave to the Globe and Mail in December.

“We believe that parents are in the best position to raise their children,” she said. “It is up to them, not the government, to decide what is best for them so long as it is in reason and not abuse.”

Those in favour of keeping the law struck a victory when a case concerning the law reached the Supreme Court in 2004. In a 6-3 decision, the court chose not to strike down the law.

In its official judgement, the court stated that “while Section 43 adversely affects children’s security of the person, it does not offend a principle of fundamental justice.”

In response to criticism, Afifi firmly holds her ground.

“When physical discipline becomes severe, there’s a grey zone,” she said. “Is this physical discipline, or is this child abuse? It creates these loopholes where our children are not being protected the way they need to be.”

Joan Durrant, a fellow professor in the U of M’s department of community healthy sciences, agrees, calling Section 43 an outmoded law originating from the late 1800s.

Section 43 provides a defence to assault when the person being hurt is a child and the person hurting the child is that child’s parent,” she said. “If that parent hit another child, they would not have a defence.

“Section 43 rests on an archaic notion of parents as owners and children as their chattel.”