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Banning the Strap: The End of Corporal Punishment in Canadian Schools

The long historical debate over the physical discipline and punishment of children arose from different perspectives on appropriate forms of child rearing and pedagogy. At one end of the spectrum were adults and educators who believed that social order, good behaviour, and moral development required the regular use of disciplinary instruments such as the rod and the strap. At the other end were those who felt that physical discipline constituted, or would lead to, the abuse of children. The Toronto Board of Education pioneered the abolition of corporal punishment in 1971. In most other Canadian jurisdictions, the strap continued to be an important instrument in the teacher’s disciplinary arsenal until the 1990s. It was not until 2004 that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that corporal punishment was an unreasonable application of force in the maintenance of classroom discipline.

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Trivia question for educational history buffs: in what decade did it become illegal to strap students in Canadian classrooms? Was it a) the 1870s, when compulsory education was introduced in Ontario and Atlantic Canada; b) the 1960s, when “child-centered” education practices swept the nation; c) the 2000s, in the wake of a campaign against child abuse by children’s rights advocates? The correct answer is c) – more precisely 2004, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that corporal punishment was an unreasonable application of force in the maintenance of classroom discipline. Notably, in the so-called “spanking case”, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Canadian parents to hit their own children (with a hand only) between the ages of 2 and 12. With this ruling, the strap and other instruments used for disciplinary purposes formally disappeared from Canadian schools, though certainly not from Canadian families.

The story of the long campaign leading to the end of corporal punishment in Canadian schools is largely unknown. The Toronto Board of Education pioneered on this front, abolishing corporal punishment in 1971 following a protracted and controversial campaign, though the matter had long been a subject of debate in educational circles.

Indeed, the various justifications for the bodily castigation of children echo throughout history. Governments, religious leaders, educators, and parents commonly believed that corporal punishment was righteous and efficient. Used appropriately, it would secure or restore order, discipline the body and motivate the mind, imbue religious and moral lessons, and both punish and prevent aberrant behaviour.

Theological doctrine offered a powerful validation for the physical discipline of children and youth at home and in school. The Old Testament famously warned adults not to “spare the rod,” and according to the doctrine of original sin, flogging the essentially “depraved” child contributed to the expulsion of the devil.

While corporal punishment endured, and was practiced with particular intensity in early nineteenth-century British and American schools, dissenting or at least moderating views were periodically voiced. Enlightenment thinkers, notably John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, advised teachers not to rely excessively on force. In 1847, American author and educator, Lyman Cobb, questioned the morality and effectiveness of physical punishment in the burgeoning common school system and recommended that the rod be employed only “as an ultimatum or last resort to make a boy yield or submit when all mild and persuasive means have failed; and not as a ‘means of moral discipline’ at all.” Nevertheless, corporal punishment in schools thrived in the United States. New Jersey formally abolished its use in 1867; the second state to do so was Massachusetts – in 1972.

Similar sentiments and practices endured in British North American schools in the late 19th century, where students (boys and girls) frequently experienced and probably always feared the rod, the ferule, the birch, or the teacher’s open hand. The rise of mass, state-funded, and compulsory schooling posed particular challenges with respect to discipline. On the one hand, teachers were tempted to use corporal punishment to establish and sustain order in large and growing classrooms, and regularly did so. On the other hand, prominent officials like Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent of Education in Ontario, realized that force alone would not, in the long run, create a compliant, appropriately socialized citizenry. A robust, peaceful, and morally grounded community required voluntary deference to authority, not simply threats and physical coercion.

The province sought to oversee and generally regulate classroom discipline while leaving implementation to the discretion of local educational authorities. The language on discipline included in the Department of Education Act of 1891, which remained in place for most of the 20th century, was an idealized expression of “in loco parentis”, a construct which assigned authority to the teacher to “stand in place of the parent”, or in the words of the Act, “to practice such discipline as would be exercised by a kind, firm, and judicious parent.”

The various justifications for the bodily castigation of children echo throughout history… it would secure or restore order, discipline the body and motivate the mind, imbue religious and moral lessons, and both punish and prevent aberrant behaviour.

This rather benign statement disguised both the pain endured by students (mostly males) who were subjected to corporal punishment, and the fear among those who were threatened with such treatment. The strap or its equivalent was an important instrument in the teacher’s disciplinary arsenal, and professional associations of teachers and principals consistently fought every effort to end the practice.

Opponents of corporal punishment included the authors of the 1968 Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives in the Schools of Ontario, known popularly as the “Hall-Dennis Report”, which sharply condemned corporal punishment and the use of the strap. It found no “educational advantage in pain, failure, threats of punishment, or appeals to fear.” Notably, the Ontario Minister of Education agreed. In a speech to the Legislative Assembly in December 1968, William Davis called upon principals and teachers to “refrain from using [corporal punishment] in the schools of Ontario.” The province, however, took no legislative or regulatory action on this matter. Instead it encouraged school boards to develop disciplinary approaches, which would foster “an atmosphere of respect and trust between students and teachers with the cultivation of individual responsibility as a major goal.” This directive allowed Ontario school boards to continue using corporal punishment, and for the time being every single board did.

Toronto Trustee William Ross sought to change that practice. An elementary teacher in the 1950s who left the profession for a business and legal career before being elected to the board in 1961, Ross felt that he had “misused” the strap, and from that time onwards he favoured its abolition. In January 1969, he put forward a motion that Toronto schools “refrain from administering corporal punishment at all times.” The motion was tabled and never reintroduced.

The issue, however, was far from settled. It erupted again in Toronto in the fall of 1970, when Graham Scott, a newly elected trustee from Ward 7, appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail brandishing a plywood paddle, which he claimed had been used by the then principal of Brant Street Public School to discipline six- to ten-year-old children with “emotional problems” in a “rehabilitation” class.

The previous day Scott, a vocal opponent of corporal punishment, had visited the school (which was not in his ward) and obtained the paddle from a teacher. Scott then contacted Globe and Mail education reporter Loren Lind, who, accompanied by a photographer, attended the Board Management Committee meeting on the afternoon of 15 September, where Scott dramatically produced the paddle.

Alerted to Scott’s impending revelations, the board summoned the former Brant Street principal, Robert Holmeshaw, to a Management Committee meeting. Holmeshaw explained that there were severe behavioural problems among the children, that he used the paddle on seven of them a total of twelve times in the previous school year, and that he administered no more than two “smart smacks” on the buttocks of each child. He also acknowledged having washed three children’s mouths out with soap for using foul language. The parents were made aware of his disciplinary methods and none complained. He contended that the use of the paddle was more humane than the leather strap.

In the wake of the Brant Street School controversy, the board established a special committee on corporal punishment, headed by Trustee Robert Orr, to offer advice on this form of discipline. Graham Scott and his supporters on the board pressed the committee to consider limiting the use of the strap. After extensive debate, the committee accepted Scott’s proposal to give parents the right to “exempt” their children from corporal punishment, a resolution endorsed by the full board in December 1970.

Toronto’s decision remained exceptional in the North American educational community… Elsewhere in Canada, the tide turned towards abolition in the 1990s.

The decision moved the board closer to a policy of abolition, but this outcome was far from certain. The director’s officer reported on July 6, 1971, that the number of strappings in 1970-71 had declined dramatically from the previous year. For those favouring abolition, this was a sign of the anachronistic status of corporal punishment, and ending it was the logical next step. For defenders of the strap, the numbers meant that teachers were showing restraint and were using the strap only as a “last resort”, a prerogative that ought to be maintained. At its July 13th meeting, the Management Committee, consisting of thirteen board members (nine of whom were present) and chaired by “reform” trustee Fiona Nelson, opted for the abolitionist position. It prepared a report recommending to the full board that the strap be permanently banned.

The full board vigorously debated the matter at its July 22nd meeting. Notwithstanding Director Ronald Jones’s continuing opposition to the recommendation for abolition, the board resolved by a vote of eleven to six to abolish corporal punishment in Toronto schools.

Toronto’s decision remained exceptional in the North American educational community. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that physical discipline in the classroom did not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”. By 1979, the York and North York School Boards had joined Toronto in banning the strap, but in the early 1980s it was still permitted in Scarborough, Etobicoke, East York, Peel, York Region, the Metropolitan Separate School Board, and virtually everywhere else in the province. Elsewhere in Canada, the tide turned towards abolition in the 1990s. Between 1989 and 1997, the governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Yukon, Prince Edward Island, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Newfoundland, and Quebec amended their education acts to prohibit corporal punishment.

The final (or at least most recent) judgment on the matter arose from the Supreme Court of Canada decision in January 2004 referenced above. While it abolished physical forms of discipline in schools, it ruled that “teachers may reasonably apply force to remove a child from a classroom or secure compliance with instructions, but not merely as corporal punishment.” By way of illustration, this meant that teachers could intervene in a fight to separate or restrain students, or guide a disruptive student by the arm to a different location in the school. Thus, teachers who acted reasonably while using a minimum of force would not be subject to prosecution.

The long historical debate over the physical discipline and punishment of children arose from different perspectives on appropriate forms of child rearing and pedagogy. At one end of the spectrum were adults and educators who believed that social order, good behaviour, and moral development required the regular use of disciplinary instruments such as the rod and the strap. At the other end were those who felt that physical discipline constituted, or would lead to, the abuse of children. Classroom instruction and school management, instead, should draw from “positive” and empathetic forms of teacher-student interaction; in the modern era, the incentive to learn should not be built on the fear of physical punishment. The majority of Canadian adults most likely occupied a middle range on the spectrum, neither believing in the moral virtues of strapping, nor persuaded that occasional physical discipline constituted child abuse. Polls consistently showed that Canadians were divided on the question. Nevertheless, changing pedagogical practices, medical and psychological evidence, children’s and human rights advocacy, and widely publicized incidents of child abuse combined to tip the balance against the application of corporal punishment in Canadian schools. But the political struggle to ban the use of physical discipline in Canadian families and households continued.[1]

EN BREF - Le débat de longue date autour du châtiment corporel des enfants a son origine dans les différents points de vue portant sur la pédagogie et la bonne façon d’élever les enfants. À une extrémité de l’échiquier se trouvaient les adultes et éducateurs croyant que l’ordre social, le bon comportement et le développement moral requéraient le recours régulier à des instruments de discipline comme la baguette et la lanière de cuir. À l’autre extrémité se trouvaient ceux soutenant que le châtiment corporel constituait un abus physique des enfants, ou pourrait y mener. Le Conseil scolaire de Toronto a été à l’avant-garde de l’abolition du châtiment corporel en 1971. Dans la plupart des autres provinces et territoires canadiens, la lanière de cuir est demeurée un important instrument de l’arsenal disciplinaire des enseignants jusque dans les années 1990. Ce n’est qu’en 2004 que la Cour suprême du Canada a statué que le châtiment corporel était une application déraisonnable de force pour maintenir la discipline en classe.


[1] In the years following the Supreme Court ruling in 2004, Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette introduced several private members’ bills to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code. The bill she sponsored in 2008 was passed by the Canadian Senate in June, but because of the dissolution of Parliament for the November federal election, it was not taken up by the House of Commons.