Ottawa — Canada has a new opportunity this week to forge a national consensus on how this sprawling 113-year-old federation should be governed. If, against all odds, the Sept. 9-to-14 constitutional conference between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the country's 10 provincial premiers is successful, it could open the way for an era of cooperation between Canada's increasingly combative government leaders.
Such an outcome would also establish Mr. Trudeau as one of the foremost statesman in Canadian history.
But if, as is more likely, the negotiations succumb to the deeply engrained enmity that exists between Mr. Trudeau the provinces, the result would be a further worsening of relations that could lead to a rupture of Canada's federal system.
For 50 years, Canadian leaders have been trying without success to "bring home" Canada's Constitution, which is an act of the British Parliament adopted in 1867. As with earlier statesmen, the stumbling block for Mr. Trudeau and contemporary provincial premiers has been a failure to agree on how power should be divided between the central and provincial governments and how the Constitution, once lodged in Canadian law, should be amended.
The same differences over federal-provincial rights, coupled with strong regional feelings, have long bedeviled Canada's political affairs. The most recent example emerged earlier this summer when the Trudeau government and Alberta, the major oil-producing province, came to loggerheads over who has the power to establish higher domestic oil prices.
Both governments claim the right to do so under current constitutional rules. The dispute, on which there is no clear legal precedent, threatens in the months ahead to blow up into a major national crisis. Its existence has added greatly to the tensions surrounding this week's negotiations.
The rift on oil pricing followed only two months after another momentous political cliffhanger, the May 20 referendum in Quebec on that French-speaking province's quest for independence. This week's constitutional talks are a direct result of that campaign, during which Mr. Trudeau, on the way to helping turn back the Quebec independence drive, promised early reforms of Canada's federal-provincial system if Quebeckers voted to "stay as a part of Canada."
But, after calling for a September constitutional conference and setting up summer-long preparatory talks at the ministerial level, Mr. Trudeau has done little to dispell the tensions between his administration and the provinces. This discord has been particularly pronounced with the Western, energy-producing provinces of Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Alberta -- three provinces where Trudeau's Liberal Party was unable to elect a single candidate in the most recent federal election in February.
Over the objections of the provinces, Trudeau has repeatedly insisted that this week's talks are in effect a deadline after which the Liberal government will act on the Constitution with or without the provinces' agreement. Only a few days ago, Mr. Trudeau reiterated that "we have to do something by the end of the year" to bring the Constitution back from Britain.
This kind of talk brings angry expressions of distrust from provincial leaders, whose outlook for the whole constitutional process was much shaken last month by a leaked Trudeau government memorandum.
The memorandum, written by a senior Trudeau aide, presented a strategy for action on the Constitution without provincial consent. This included a suggestion for an early recall of Parliament to approve the necessary request to the British Government for transferring the governing document to Canadian law.
Rene Levesque, premier of Quebec, termed the plan outlined in the memorandum a "power grab" by the federal government. Peter Lougheed, premier of Alberta, said Ottawa's attitude "did not create a good atmosphere to start a conference with."
While the provinces are striving to play down the make- or-break atmosphere of the talks, political observers see them as a crucial turning point in squabbles over federal- provincial relations that go back to the country's formation.
"Whenever you look back at this whole issue in the future," said one Ottawa man, "September 1980 will always be an important historic moment."
But, despite the high stakes, many Canadians, long-inured to complex constitutional arguments, see this week as just more of the same. "Debating federalism is what keeps this country together," quipped a professor.
In discussions up until last week, federal and provincial officials have narrowed some of their differences on the 12 items that would be part of a new constitution, and limited optimism has been expressed about a possible breakthrough despite the underlying discord among national leaders.