Canadian constitutional debate heats up

Even the February winter blahs cannot raise the constitutional debate here to the level of a spectator sport. But as the debate reaches the floor of the House of Commons, Canadians are finally showing an interest in how their government plans to restructure their nation.

Over the past 12 years, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's intermittent attempts to resolve the constitutional impasse and patriate the Canadian Constitution from Britain have been noted only for their soporific effect on the nation.

What is perhaps most surprising is the extent to which Canadians now object to Trudeau's handling of his pet project.

Liberal support has slipped steadily since last fall, according to public opinion polls.Further, two out of three Canadians indicate they are not happy with Trudeau's plan to patriate the Constitution, despite objections from the provinces.

This is not surprising, given the Canadian passion for still waters. But it is also a good indication of how late most Canadians have come to watch the constitutional show.

Trudeau's previous attempts to assume Canadian control for its Constitution have been frustrated by his inability to win unanimous approval from the 10 provincial premiers. This failure to win agreement has been the common theme of all constitutional debate in this country since 1931, when the British handed over complete independence to its former colony.

But then, as now, the provinces feared that any attempt to alter the Constitution by Ottawa would result in reduced regional powers. So final approval for constitutional change was retained by London.

This ancient theme of the provinces has become an anthem in the House of Commons this week as debate on the Constitution resumes after three months before an all-party committee.

What is under debate is no less than competing visions of the country.

The argument of the Trudeau Liberals is that without patriation, coupled with the highly controversial charter of human and language rights Trudeau wants included, Canadians -- and particularly French- speaking Canadians -- will never feel at home in their own country.

This was put most eloquently by a young Quebec Liberal, Dennis Dawson, whose name belies his French ancestry. "If we would not have waited so long to adopt Canadian symbols [such as the national anthem and the flag] maybe Quebeckers would still be calling themselves French Canadians and not Quebecois," Mr. Dawson told the House of Commons this week. "We have to assure ourselves that this Canadianization continues."

he Conservative objections are rooted in the rights charter, which they see short- circuiting provincial legislative authority. They also object to a clause in the proposed constitutional changes that would allow Ottawa to call a referendum to break any deadlock between the federal and provincial governments over constitutional change.

This again is seen as contrary to the spirit of a federal state.

The Liberals counter with the notion Canada is doomed to be a "checkerboard" state should provincial governmets be permitted to continue blocking constitutional change or, as the Conservatives have suggested, be allowed to opt out of some or all of the rights proposed in the charter.

The Conservatives warn of lasting ill- feelings, particularly among the four western provinces, should Trudeau use his majority to force through the proposed package.

The Liberal belief that such feelings will soon die is supported by the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Edward Broadbent, who has thrown his unqualified support behind Trudeau.

"The very birth of our nation was also divisive," Mr. Broadbent asserted. "We have to take a little divisiveness if it's good for Canada in the long run."

Broadbent's own 32-member caucus is split on the issue, with four Saskatchewan members declaring their opposition.

This is not surprising, given the opposition to the proposals by Saskatchewan's premier, Allan Blakeney. His authority in the province is supreme and he could, given the right impetus, shorten the careers of at least three of the four NDP federal members who have decided to side with him.

Mr. Blakeney is the eighth premier to declare his opposition to Trudeau's plan. He is also the most dangerous to Trudeau, as his credibility in the country is higher than that of any other provincial leader and, in the west, far higher than Trudeau's

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