Trudeau heads back to the drawing board
Ottawa — "Nothing will ever satisfy them." That was Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's comment on the country's provincial premiers after the breakdown of historic constitutional talks here.
The premiers appeared equally frustrated with Mr. Trudeau, a man whose political life has been dedicated to preserving his country's faltering unity.
Canadians, caught in the middle, contemplate a future suddenly more uncertain than ever. For at the root of all last week's discord was what Trudeau called two different visions of Canada -- his own, which demands a strong central government to protect the national interest, and that of the 10 provincial premiers across the table from him, who see the country as a loose association of near-sovereign provincial governments.
With the five-day effort to hammer out a new constitution now just another in a long list of similar failures reaching back to 1929, it seems inevitable that the conflicting national and provincial goals so evident in the talks will erupt in further confrontation in the months ahead.
If so, this will take Canada, already troubled by regional and cultural dissension, close to a point where its 113-year- old federal system may cease to function effectively.
Almost as bad as the collapse of constitutional negotiations was the critical , pessimistic attitude pervading the final remarks of Trudeau and the 10 provincial premiers as the meetings closed.
While the dejected, angry premiers accused Trudeau of adopting an unyielding, uncaring, and authoritarian attitude in the bargaining over the elements of a new constitution, the prime minister accused them of offering no more than an "ultimatum" demanding greater provincial powers. "It wasn't a case of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, but a case of you scratch my back or I'll scratch your face," Trudeau said after the conference.
The question for Canadians, millions of whom followed the negotiations on television through much of the week, is what will be Trudeau's next move. Canada's Constitution, an 1867 act of the British Parliament, still resides in Britain. Though Canada has had the option of "bringing it home" since 1931, no action has been taken because Canadian leaders have for decades been split on how they would amend the Constitution once it was part of Canadian law.
The failure of last week's talks would seem to activate recent threats by the Trudeau government to bring the Constitution back without the participation of the provinces. Trudeau refused to commit himself Sept. 13, but most observers expect him to follow through with this plan.
Though favoring "bringing home" the Constitution, the provinces want a say in the process, both to protect their interests in any amendment formula and because Trudeau, while he is at it, may try to install a bill of rights in the new constitution. It became clear last week that most provincial governments solidly oppose a bill of political and democratic freedoms on the grounds that such liberties are best protected by elected representatives, not the courts.
If, in the face of provincial warnings against acting alone, Trudeau approaches Britain without the provinces' consent, it is certain to unleash an historic political quarrel. This will be especially so if Trudeau includes a bill of rights in the constitution. To overcome provincial opposition, probably expressed in legal challenges and outraged cries to the British government to ignore Trudeau's constitutional request, the Liberal government may ask all Canadians to vote on the issue in a referendum.
In the months ahead, the Trudeau administration has another major headache before it: a dispute on oil pricing with Alberta, the country's most important oil-producing province, over who can set domestic petroleum prices.
There is also the movement to split off Quebec from Canada. Separatists adherents in the French-speaking province, while subdued after losing last spring's referendum on Quebec independence, still form a potent political force. It was to satisfy Quebecers' yearnings for more provincial autonomy that Trudeau initiated this round of now- failed constitutional talks, and pro-separatist Quebec Premier Rene Levesque will use Trudeau's inability to reach a compromise with the provinces to stir up resentment in his province against federal authorities.
Of the 12 items under consideration in the constitutional negociations, agreement was near on some of the more minor issues -- such as control of family law by the provinces and changes to the Canadian Supreme Court. But the conference foundered on the major questions of whether the federal government or the provinces should control natural resources and interprovincial trade and on an amending formula for the new governing charter.