Court win gives red-faced Trudeau a break

Amid more political confusion than Canada has witnessed since the 1966 debate over a new flag, the federal government has won its first court battle with the provinces over its constitutional reform package.

By a 3-to-2 majority, the Manitoba Court of Appeal ruled the federal government has the authority to amend the Constitution without approval from all 10 provincial governments.

But the provincial court ducked the key question of whether the changes proposed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government alter the historic balance of power between Ottawa and the provinces, as a majority of provinces argue.

Even this partial victory is a blessing for Trudeau. Caught red-faced this week in a web of contrary statements about British concurrence for his project, Trudeau's momentum seemed to have faltered.

Trudeau's reform package calls for the Canadian Constitution to be surrendered or patriated from Britain, where it was passed in 1867 by the British Parliament as the British North America Act, ceding autonomy to the new nation.

And there, in Britain, the act remains. Despite several efforts this century -- two by Trudeau -- unanimous agreement from Ottawa and the provinces on the post-patriation balance of powers has eluded Canadian legislators.

Trudeau hopes this time to end-run the provinces by having the British patriate the Constitution upon a resolution of both the House of Commons and the Senate, both controlled by Trudeau's Liberals.

But Trudeau has also chosen to have the British force through an amending formula and a charter of rights as part of the package. Seven of the 10 provincial premiers object to this. An eighth, Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan, is fence-sitting, but tilting in the direction of the opposition premiers.

The intergovernmental bickering is having its effect. Opinion surveys last month show a majority of Canadians favor a "made- in-Canada" Constitution, but they don't want it introduced over provincial objections.

More dangerous just now for Trudeau is the Uncertainty surrounding his dealings with the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Canada is a nation of Anglophiles with strong monarchist sentiment, a fact reflected in the agonies the country went through when shifting its flag from the red ensign to the present maple leaf.

Trudeau maintains he extracted from Thatcher the promise she would act on any joint resolution from the Canadian Senate and Commons to patriate the Constitution. He also claims he made Thatcher aware of the extent of provincial objections.

The verity of these claims has been cast in doubt, however, by newspaper reports out of London suggesting Thatcher never agreed to support a package that lacked broad provincial and public support in Canada.

Further, a special committee of the British House of Commons recommended last week against patriating accepting the Trudeau proposal without provincial concurrence.

Trudeau has publicly and repeatedly insisted that Mrs. Thatcher personally assured him in June she would force the package through the British House.

Trudeau also claims he and Thatcher had a "long discussion" at that time about possible provincial opposition. In a television interview at that time, however, Trudeau said on the steps of 10 Downing Street he had made only passing reference to the provinces.

On the matter of Thatcher's enthusiasm for his project, Trudeau told the House of Commons Feb. 2 that "until Mrs. Thatcher is prepared to say to the contrary, my word must stand."

The Conservative opposition in Ottawa has gone so far as to suggest Trudeau wants to provoke a confrontation with the British in order to rally public opinion to his side. If so, Thatcher is wisely not providing a target.

Through this smokescreen, the all-party committee studying the Trudeau proposals in Ottawa labors on, its deadline for reporting back to Parliament extended a second time, to Feb. 13.

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