Trudeau drive to bring charter home hits legal roadblock

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's historic attempt to give Canada a new Constitution has unexpectedly faltered in the face of legal and procedural obstacles thrown up by his opponents in Parliament and provincial capitals.

Until a few days ago, there was every indication Mr. Trudeau would successfully ride out the storm of opposition that erupted last October following his decision to install a new governing charter over the heads of the provinces.

But a combined front made up of eight of the 10 provincial premiers and former Prime Minister and Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark has managed to bog down Mr. Trudeau just short of his goal.

Unless this latest constitutional deadlock can be broken quickly, Canada may be in for months more of uncertainty on this issue, which has troubled the country for decades and is now adding to the regional strains threatening national unity.

Mr. Trudeau's response to this drift toward Balkanization has been to try to unify the country under a new Constitution. To do this, he wants to "bring home" the current Constitution from Britain, where it now resides because the federal government in Ottawa and the provinces have never agreed on what it should contain once lodged in Canada.

Now, acting with the support of only two provinces, Trudeau wants Parliament to pass a resolution asking Britain to send back Canada's governing charter, including a new bill of rights and an amending formula.

The provinces, supported by Mr. Clark, argue vehemently that Trudeau's action is a blatant power grab meant to deprive the provincial premiers of some of their rights under Canada's highly decentralized federal system.

Though debate on the constitutional resolution has dragged on for months in the Canadian Parliament, most observers thought Mr. Trudeau would have no trouble putting the measure before the British Parliament this spring.

His strategy was initially thrown off by a desperate filibuster on the floor of the House of Commons in the past week by which the Conservatives were able to postpone a vote on Trudeau's resolution. The Liberals have the power under a little-used cloture law to end the filibuster but have been reluctant to use this publicly unpopular measure.

Then, on March 31, Mr. Trudeau's opponents won a major victory in the highest court in Newfoundland, one of three jurisdictions in which the Trudeau proposals have been legally challenged by a group of premiers. The Newfoundland Court of Appeal ruled unanimously that the Liberal government could not install a new charter binding on provincial government without their consent.

Even though the federal government had won a similar case in Manitoba in February, the Newfoundland decision, coupled with the Conservatives bitter filibuster, seem to break Trudeau's determination.

He agreed to await a decision of his constitutional package by the Supreme Court of Canada before approaching Britain if the Conservatives would end their procedural blockage of parliamentary business.

Trudeau added that if the Supreme Court decides his proposals are illegal, "then the government will have to admit that it cannot proceed in the United Kingdom with the resolution in this form."

It was the prime minister's first concession since the constitutional debate began in earnest last fall and, as such, an important victory for Mr. Clark.

Discussions between Liberal and Conservative Party leaders continued April 2 in an attempt to strike a compromise that would allow Parliament to pass the constitutional resolution and then wait for the Supreme Court's ruling before proceeding further.

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