Trudeau gets go-ahead to write a new constitution

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has won a compromise agreement after three and a half days of intense bargaining with the country's 10 provincial governors. The accord gave Mr. Trudeau the approval he needed to proceed with the writing of a new constitution, an effort that has bitterly divided Canadians for the past year and that, if not resolved, threatened to upset the nation's already-shaky unity.

As the grueling private negotiations ended here Nov. 5, there were indications from officials that the unified front of provincial premiers opposing Trudeau's constitutional package had broken down.

Coming into the conference, Mr. Trudeau had enjoyed the support of only two provinces - Ontario and New Brunswick. But by Nov. 5, it appeared that nine of Canada's provinces would support the compromise deal. The lone holdout appeared to be Quebec, the French-speaking province whose Parti Quebecois government is committed to eventually taking the province out of the Canadian confederation.

The compromise deal allows the Trudeau government to set up a new constitution, including a controversial bill of rights and an amending formula for making future changes to the constitution. But it also allows the provinces to nullify the bill of rights provisions within their own boundaries if they so want.

The arrangement was a stunning compromise for Mr. Trudeau, who in the past has rejected these so-called opting out provisions as likely to create a ''checkerboard Canada'' where fundamental civil and democratic rights are guaranteed in some provinces but not in others.

Even so, winning a deal at this conference is seen as a great triumph for Mr. Trudeau, who precipitated the current crisis last fall by saying he would write a new Canadian constitution without the help of the 10 provinces.

In Canada's federal system, where the provinces hold considerably wider powers than do US states, Mr. Trudeau's move amounted to a declaration of war with the provincial premiers. They vigorously opposed the bill of rights envisioned by Mr. Trudeau on the grounds that it would infringe on the power of the provincial legislators.

Because Canada's constitution - a holdover from the colonial era - still resides in Britain, Mr. Trudeau's action must take the form of a request to the British Parliament to return Canada's constitution to Ottawa, complete with the new measures.

While such approval by Westminster would normally be a formality, there had been indications that British MPs might balk at sending the constitution back to Canada during a period of intense conflict on the issue between Ottawa and the provinces.

If Mr. Trudeau can show that he has support from all but one of the provincial governments, passage by Britain of Mr. Trudeau's constitutional package should be assured.

The historic breakthrough in the constitutional talks closed one of the most divisive chapters in Canadian history. Ottawa and the provinces have been at odds over the division of powers.

In recent years, that dispute, coupled with intense regional strains caused by restiveness in Quebec and in Canada's oil-rich western provinces, had brought the country to the verge of chaos.

What the compromise agreement promises for Quebec was not clear. But Mr. Trudeau and his new-found allies among the provinces seem to have isolated the Quebec Premier Rene Levesque by reportedly including guarantees for French minority language rights across Canada in the constitution.

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