Trudeau isn't taking no for an answer -- but he should
"Start with the facts" has long been Pierre Elliot Trudeau's advice to those who would effect change in the arduous process of political democracy. Suddenly , Canada's prime minister seems determined not to let the facts of Canadian politics interfere with his die-hard vision of forging a united, federal nation under the aegis of a new constitution. That vision is not without some merit, but Trudeau's methods reduce the possibility that Canadians will place any real confidence in his solution.Skip to next paragraph
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To start with the facts, there is formidable political and popular opposition to Trudeau's plan to unilaterally patriate from London Canada's present constitution, the British North America Act of 1867. In the wake of a Conservative Party filibuster in Parliament and a series of legal actions initiated by three of Canada's ten provincial governments (and supported by five others), Trudeau has agreed to refer his constitution resolution to the Canadian Supreme Court before sending it to Westminster. If the court rules in Trudeau's favor, the resolution will then be voted on by the British Parliament, which, due to heavy lobbying from the provinces, has not indicated any willingness to rubber-stamp the Canadian legislation in usual fashion.
Trudeau may nonetheless prevail in London. But even then, his constitutional plan calls for federal-provincial unanimity on any constitutional amendments proposed within two years after patriation. Thereafter, the plan proposes a formula that would require a substantial majority of provinces representing 80 percent of the population to approve any constitutional amendments.
What all this means is that, first, by breaching the long-established convention of federal-provincial unanimity on important constitutional changes, of which the question of patriation is one, Trudeau has almost surely laid the groundwork for yet another political stalemate when the hard specifics of power-sharing reach the conference table. Second, it means that built-in clauses of the Trudeau plan which would mandate interprovincial "equalization" payments and a code of language rights could be the source of grave conflict in the years ahead.
Indeed, it is the twin burdens of economic regionalism and ethnic separatism that have burdened every recent attempt by Trudeau and others to establish a new constitution for Canada. But this time the prime minister isn't taking no for an answer, and the reaction has been predictable. In Alberta, Premier Peter Lougheed made good on his threat to curtail his province's oil production by 15 percent as of March 1 in retaliation for federal efforts to secure a greater share of oil revenues. Leaders in the maritime provinces have amplified their demands for greater control over mineral resources and coastal fishing areas. And in Quebec, whence comes half of Trudeau's majority in Parliament, the recent reelection of Premier Rene Levesque's Parti Quebecois could hardly be taken as an endorsement of Trudeau's call for constitutional renewal.
Power struggles aside, the main reason that the prime minister's constitutional fiat has met such strong resistance is that the Canadian federation itself lacks a theoretical framework to uphold a common set of goals and values. This is a consequence of history and geography, not an innate sense of apathy on the part of the Canadian people. Without such a framework, the bonds of region and ethnicity cannot be effectively challenged.
What is lacking is a positive, reasoned, and well-defined consensus that the whole of Canada is greater than its parts. And for this reason it seems futile for Trudeau to attempt to impose one more functional arrangement on an unwilling populace.
Trudeau himself elucidated the problem most prophetically some 15 years ago. Writing in Cite Libre, a highly regarded Montreal publication of the era, he remarked that, "more than history and geography, more than language and culture, even more than force and power, the foundation of the nation is will."