Ottawa vs. London; 'Family feud' over Canada's charter

Canada has drifted closer to a noisy and embarrassing feud with its mother country and ally -- Britain. In the latest incident in the growing transatlantic quarrel, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's government has issued a snappish warning to Britain about the handling of a package of Canadian constitutional reforms expected soon to come before the British Parliament.

The row has its roots in Canada's peculiar situation as a country without its own Constitution.

A former British colony, Canada has been independent since 1931. But at the time of independence Canadians declined to transfer their Constitution to Canada. To this day it remains a statute of the British Parliament known as the British North America Act of 1867.

The charter was left in Westminster because the Ottawa government could not agree with Canada's provincial governors on an acceptable division of powers to be contained in a new, all-Canadian constitution.

Despite negotiations over the years, a consensus still eludes the leaders of Canada's diverse regions. The impasse led an exasperated Mr. Trudeau to decide last fall to "bring home" the charter without the agreement of the 10 provincial premiers.

While he is at it, he plans to ask the British Parliament to install in the Canadian Constitution a bill of rights and a formula for amending the charter.

Like most Canadians, the premiers want to see their Constitution removed once and for all from Westminster. But 8 of the 10 premiers vehemently oppose Mr. Trudeau's constitutional proposals, which tye see as a means of expanding Ottawa's powers to the detriment of provincial governments.

As the dispute over the constitutional proposals has dragged on in Canada over the winter, Canadians have constantly wondered how Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government would react to Mr. Trudeau's reform package, which will be communicated to London in the form of a joint resolution of both houses of the Canadian Parliament. This is expected in early April.

The British would like to turn over the Canadian charter to Ottawa but must now contend with pressure from the Canadian provinces. They argue that Westminster should wait until there is a consensus in Canada on how the new charter should read.

The latest report from Canada said Ottawa's reading of historical precedent indicates the British will have no choice but to send back the British north America Act.

Anything else, said the document, would be "an intolerable interference" in Canada's affairs. The report even hinted Canada might even pull out of the 43 -member Commonwealth of Nations.

This was Ottawa's answer to a recent study by a British House of Commons committee that concluded, muc to Mr. Trudeau's chagrin, that Westminster need not approve the Canadian constitutional package if it is widely opposed by Canada's provinces.

For the Thatcher government, it is a most unwelcome dilemma. While the opposition Progressive Conservatives tried to stall Mr. Trudeau's constitutional moves with a filibuster in the Parliament in Ottawa last week, pressure continued to build in Britain.

In the British Parliament there is strong opposition to Mr. Trudeau's plans among a handful of MPs, with a few dozen more wavering out of the total Commons membership of 635.

Thus most observers expect the resolution from Ottawa to pass later this spring after some bickering in the Commo ns.

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