Trudeau’s ban on spanking echoes Eileen Dailly’s ban of the strap, which rocked Barrett’s NDP in 1973

NDP education minister Eileen Dailley sparked an uproar in 1973 when she banned the strap in schools, but the ban stuck. Will Trudeau's spanking ban be as successful?

NDP education minister Eileen Dailly sparked an uproar in 1973 when she banned the strap in schools, but the ban stuck. Will Trudeau’s spanking ban be as successful?

The Trudeau government’s vow to ban spanking, as proposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is fuelling a controversy on corporal punishment that recalls a similar decision that unexpectedly rocked Dave Barrett’s NDP government in 1973.

Gary Mason, of the Globe and Mail, declares himself in favour of the ban in this recent column, but his exploration of the issue highlights how deeply the issue resonates with anyone who has ever been a parent or a child . . . which is everyone.

When education minister Eileen Dailly told Barrett of her determination to ban the strap in schools, Barrett readily agreed. But the issue exploded in a way that the savvy populist Premier had not anticipated, as Rod Mickleburgh and I reported in The Art of the Impossible, our history of the Barrett years. Will Trudeau face the same blowback?

Here’s what happened to Barrett:

Barrett . . . was blindsided by the reaction to Education Minister Eileen Dailly’s sudden announcement of a ban on corporal punishment in BC schools. The abolition of the strap was a matter of principle for Dailly. As a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, she had tried the strap and seen the futility of it. In one case, she later told the Legislature, she had gone to see the parents of a particularly disruptive student, only to have the father take his own strap down from the wall and proceed to beat his son. A review of school records disclosed that some schools did not use the strap at all; others reported strappings more than 200 times in a three-month period.

Dailly had made a personal vow not to serve as minister as long as corporal punishment was permitted, but unlike many of her cabinet colleagues, she took the precaution of meeting with Barrett before announcing her new policy, making him confirm three times in a private meeting that he supported the change. “Up until that time I had considered myself to be a pretty perceptive politician,” he wrote later, “but in no way did I understand the political significance of this seemingly trivial exchange.”

When Dailly, a former teacher, rose in the house Feb. 14 to defend the NDP budget she set out her educational philosophy and key priorities in a speech that unveiled at least six major initiatives. The pledge to abolish the strap sparked an uproar, but it was accompanied by the promise of special commissions on both primary and post-secondary education, the implementation of province-wide kindergarten, expansion of French language education and a province-wide family life and sex education curriculum.

“I cannot as Minister of Education in all consciousness, preside over a school system which condones and permits the use of corporal punishment on the children in the schools of British Columbia,” Dailly said. “Surely, Mr. Speaker, if we want to reduce acts of violence in our community and in the world, we must eliminate acts of violence in our schools. If we want to develop future generations into more humane people, we must practice more humanity ourselves.”

Unlike agricultural policy, an obscure topic to the majority of voters, everyone could understand the strap. Dailly’s policy shifts, none of which was ever reversed, seemed at the time like a can of gas poured on a blazing political fire.

“Talk-show hosts launched into an absolutely maniacal attack,” Barrett recalled later, suggesting that normally placid children were turning in the classroom into “wild animals who needed the strap to keep them in line.” Confronted by intense criticism in public meetings, Barrett gave as good as he got, demanding in one Williams Lake showdown “why the hell we should use taxpayers’ money to beat your child? If you want your child beaten, do it on your time and at your expense. We will not be like free enterprise governments, we will not usurp parents’ responsibilities. As socialist, we don’t believe the state has that right. But watch out. If you do beat your kid, you could get charged with abuse.”