Canada's political leaders are hastily dividing into two opposing camps for what is expected to be an historic political struggle over a new constitution. The catalyst came late week when Prime Minister Piere Trudeau unveiled a new governing charter that he intends to install without the consent of Canada's 10 powerful provincial premiers.
Mr. Trudeau says he is taking the step on his own to break the pattern of federal-provincial squabbling over power-sharing that has frustrated 50 years of constitutional negotiations in Canada. He has dispatched two Cabinet ministers to London to brief the Queen and prepare the ground for the return to Canada of its governing charter. Currently Canada's Constitution is an act of the British Parliament, adopted in 1867.
The new charter, including a controversial bill of rights that will, if installed, be bindind on the provinces as well as Ottawa, is to be debated in the Canadian Parliament when it resumes today after a two-month recess.
The bill of rights, similar to that of the United States, would provide Canadians with written guarantees of fundamental democratic and legal freedoms, outlaw racial and sexual discrimination, and ensure bilingual education rights for Canada's English and French speakers no matter whre they live.
While Canadians have enjoyed basic democratic rights throughout their 113 -year history, those freedoms have been protected only through legal tradition. Writing them down in a charter is a step not welcomed by most provincial government heads, who feel such matters should be left to the legislatures in a parliamentary system like Canada's.
As proposed by Mr. Trudeau, the charter also would include guarantees for citizens to work in any province, a provision intended to override provincial employment laws favoring citizens of particular provinces.
In addition, there would be a clause stating the formula for future agreements between Ottawa and the provinces on constitutional amendments and a clause upholding the current system of federally controlled "equalization" payments by which poorer Canadian provinces receive some funds from richer ones.
The assertive provincial leaders already have expressed opposition to some of these specific constitutional planks. But, in a wider and more important sense, they view Mr. Trudeau's decision to draw up a new constitution without them as a direct assault on their authority.
Most of the premiers, already angry at Trudeau for what they see as power- mongering on behalf of the central government, wasted no time after the constitutional unveiling in Ottawa in rallying to decry the federal proposals.
Sterling Lyon, premier of the western province of Manitoba, said Trudeau is "operating in his own little dream world." The charter of rights favored by Ottawa, he added, is a "fundamental invasion" of provincial power. Mr. Lyon announced a meeting of the premiers in two weeks in Toronto to orchestrate resistance to Trudeau's plan.
"We will fight back in any way we can devise" against Ottawa's proposal, said Peter Lougheed, the powerful premier of Alberta, the western oil- producing province that is involved in a parallel battle with Ottawa over resource jurisdiction.
In Quebec, where Trudeau also has been embroiled in a tenble from both expected and unexpected sources. Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, who favors independence for the French-speaking province, surprised no one when he called the new constitution a pernicious attack on the provinces.
But criticism from Claude Ryan, leader of the Quebec Liberal Party and a Trudeau ally in the fight to keep the province part of Canada, came as a bit of a shock. Mr. Ryan said Trudeau was wrong to proceed without provincial consent.
The provinces are expected to fight back with provincial referendums on the constitutional issue or by challenging Prime Minister Trudeau's right to act on his own in the courts. The provinces also may lobby the British government, which will be asked to approve the new constitutional clauses and then transfer Canada's governing charter to Canada. Provincial appeals to London would probably take the form of a request to refuse to let Canada "bring home" its constitution until federal-provincial squabbling is cleared up.
Besides threatening certain provinces' special interests, the decision to act "unilaterally" by the Prime Minister is a slap to provincial leaders. In Canada's loose federal state, the 10 premiers wield considerable power, and their agreement has been until recently considered essential in the process of trying to devise a new governing charter.
This effort has been going on intermittently since Canada achieved independence in 1931. But disagreements between Ottawa and the provinces have always proven insurmountable.