The federal NDP want to end 'reasonable force’ against children – but what is reasonable?

The federal New Democratic Party introduced Bill C-273 last year, which seeks to put an end to the use of force against children | Shutterstock

Last year, the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) introduced Bill C-273, which seeks to put an end to the use of force against children – by parents and schoolteachers alike – in Canada.

The proposed legislation would eliminate Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which reads: “Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”

This is not the first attempt to abolish a piece of legislation that has been around, with few modifications, since the publication of the 1892 Criminal Code. It is challenging, in any century, to establish what “reasonable” actually means. Every parent and schoolteacher may have a unique definition.

Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about this issue and found remarkable age differences on personal experiences. Only 30 per cent of Canadians told us that they were never physically disciplined as children. The younger generation has been spared the rod: 40 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 say they did not experience physical discipline from a parent or teacher, compared to 27 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 and 26 per cent among those aged 55 and over.

About two thirds of Canadians aged 35 to 54 (65 per cent) and aged 55 and over (67 per cent) were physically disciplined by a parent or guardian, compared to 47 per cent among those aged 18 to 34.

For centuries, educational institutions have operated under the “in loco parentis” doctrine, meaning that schoolteachers and principals are acting “in place of the parent.” The possibility of students being physically disciplined inside a Canadian school was higher decades ago. While fewer than one in five Canadians aged 18 to 34 (15 per cent) and aged 35 to 54 (19 per cent) recall a schoolteacher doing this to them, the proportion rises to 32 per cent among those aged 55 and over.

Canadians see a problem in establishing an equivalency between parents and teachers. More than half (58 per cent) agree with allowing parents to physically discipline children in Canada, while 36 per cent disagree. We do not see a radical generational gap on this matter, with majorities of Canadians aged 18 to 34 (53 per cent), aged 35 to 54 (58 per cent) and aged 55 and over (61 per cent) thinking the provision is adequate.

The numbers shift drastically when Canadians are asked about schoolteachers using “reasonable force” on a child. Only 26 per cent of Canadians are in favor of this regulation, while more than two thirds (68 per cent) are against it. Opposition is strong among the youngest (70 per cent), middle (68 per cent) and oldest (65 per cent) age brackets.

The proponents of Bill C-273 are not alone. More than half of Canadians (51 per cent) think it is time to abolish the legislation that allows schoolteachers and parents to use “reasonable force” to discipline children, up 17 points since a Research Co. survey conducted in May 2018.

The generational differences are significant. While 61 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 support the eventual repeal of Section 43, the proportion drops to 53 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 and to 42 per cent among those aged 55 and over. Abolishing Section 43 is also more popular among women (57 per cent) than men (46 per cent).

On a regional basis, Quebec is significantly higher than the rest of Canada on seeking the end of Section 43 (61 per cent). British Columbia is a distant second (50 per cent), followed by Ontario (49 per cent), Alberta (also 49 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (45 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (also 45 per cent).

Canadians who voted for the NDP and the Liberal Party in the 2021 federal election are clearly in favour of a repeal (61 per cent and 58 per cent respectively). Conservative Party supporters are not as convinced: 40 per cent think the time is right to end the chance of parents and teachers to use “reasonable force” to discipline children, while half (50 per cent) would leave things as they are.

In the 21st century, research into parenting and children’s behaviour is readily available online, yet Canada continues to have a regulation in the books that is very close – in spirit and lack of clarity – to one that was written a few years after the invention of the typewriter.

Laws are supposed to change as a society evolves. Parents are getting better at understanding the needs of their children without having to resort to physical contact, and only about one in four Canadians see nothing wrong with schoolteachers striking their pupils. The next logical step is a review of Section 43.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from Feb. 9-11, 2023, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error – which measures sample variability – is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.