Jean Chrétien says children are a priority. Indeed, youth issues generally are rising to the top of the nation's agenda, with education, poverty and abuse all ranking as concerns in opinion polls.
With that in mind, the Prime Minister should abolish an antiquated section of the Criminal Code that condones violence against children. That would send a signal to the entire country about the need to raise the status of children in our society, and to fight child abuse.
Section 43 of the Criminal Code permits parents, teachers and other adults to use "force" to "correct" children. Recently it has been used in successful defences of teachers and parents who have slapped, pushed and punched children, a teacher who struck a child's head with a hammer, and another who hit a student with a book.
Those who defend spanking on social or religious grounds believe that it is a parent's right - even duty - to hit a child in order to mold that child's behaviour so that he or she becomes a responsible adult. But that's a hotly debated notion.
Critics point out that if one applied the same logic to adults, it would be treated as an infringement of human rights. We no longer administer the lash to discourage petty crime because as a society we believe physical violence is wrong. Section 43 is a holdover from the days when it was legal - and socially acceptable - to hit women, children, workers and prisoners.
Studies show that spanking children changes short-term behaviour. But children who are spanked also are far more likely to be aggressive and violent, and to break the law. Hitting children may be a short-term solution that creates long-term problems.
There is also a hard-to-draw line between spanking and child abuse. While most parents who hit their children do not cross that line, those who do harm their children almost invariably try to excuse it in the name of discipline
In countries where the explicit right to hit children has been taken out of law, the rate of children killed and seriously injured has dropped.
Eliminating Section 43 would not in itself criminalize the act of striking a child.
Physical discipline would still be permitted, under the common law, most experts believe. What the change would do is remove a defence in statute law for that act. And that would send a signal that society is coming to regard such acts as unnecessary, and to be avoided.
There are those who worry that if the law is changed, parents will lose all authority over children and youngsters will run to the police at the slightest pretext. Experience in other jurisdictions suggests this is unlikely.
Public attitudes toward children are changing, and for the better. Eighteen countries and 26 American states have banned corporal punishment in schools. Five countries have banned corporal punishment by parents. Dozens have scrapped laws like Section 43 that condone hitting children. In none of these countries has there been an explosion of prosecutions of parents who spanked.
Here in Canada, the problem is not whether we might end up prosecuting trivial cases of alleged child abuse but whether the law as it now stands puts up impediments to prosecuting serious cases.
The United Nations has urged Ottawa to do away with Section 43, because it is inconsistent with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Section 43 is a holdover from the days when women and children were not considered fully human. Its days should be numbered.