Canadian leaders try to hammer out a constitutional agreement

Canada's leaders are meeting here this week to put aside 50 years of bickering over a new Canadian constitution. But the first three days of debate left many with no doubt that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the 10 provincial premiers could go on arguing for years -- perhaps decades -- before reaching an agreement.

Unless swift compromises are reached against all odds in two scheduled days of private bargaining, the conference seems headed for failure. This would set the stage for a possible confrontation between the Trudeau administration and the provinces this fall that could strain Canada's already shaky federation to the breaking point.

Throughout this troubled summer in Canada, the longstanding split between the central authorities and the provinces has grown wider. For this reason, no one dreamed that the participants in this week's conference could easily narrow their differences on what elements should be incorporated in a new constitution.

But the meetings have seemed, if anything, to push Trudeau and the provincial leaders further apart. On Sept. 10, for instance, the premiers raised a solid wall of opposition to Trudeau on the issue most crucial to him -- the inclusion of a bill of individual rights in a new constitution.

After six hours of fruitless discussions on this issue, Trudeau looked out over the large, octagonal conference table and told a nationwide television audience that such a charter of rights would be approved someday -- but not this time.

"I'm a little bit sad that 10 years from now people will look at us and say they couldn't do it that day," he remarked. With the talks running well behind the scheduled agenda, it was possible that the meeting, planned to end Sept. 12, would continue into the weekend.

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