Dark constitutional clouds hang over Canada's Trudeau

Only one more hurdle separates Canadian Prime Minister Peirre Trudeau from his goal of a new constitution. But it is still impossible to tell if he will be remembered as the man who unified his country or fractured it irretrievably.

Overcoming Canada's divisive regional differences and ending its status as a nation without its own constitution have been the fundamental passions of the Prime minister's political career.

Last week, after almost a year of frustrating delays, Mr. Trudeau's historic effort to forge a new governing charter for Canada moved into its final phase.

By april 23, both houses of the Canadian Parliament had voted their approval of a revised package of constitutional reforms put forward by the Liberal government.

So bitter has been the government's battle over these reforms with Mr. TRudeau's federal and provincial opponents that the usually combative prime minister appealed April 24 for a period of reconciliation.

"In an economy like Canada's, which is based on a federal state, [with] most of the powers over contracts, prices, and wages, [and] most of the jurisdiction being in provincial hands, we must seek a consensus," Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

A chance to begin mending the rift between Trudeau and eight provinvial premiers vehemently opposed to his constitutional reforms presents itself over the next month. The Canadian Supreme Court begins hearings April 29 on a test case on the legality of these reforms, and little will happen on the issue until the court hands down a ruling in early June.

That ruling will make or break the Liberal government's constitutional aims. If the nine senior judges decide that Mr. Trudeau does not have the right to devise a new governing charter without the consent of Canada's provincial governments, the nation's leaders will be back at square one in dealing with this issue.

If, as some experts consider more likely, the high court rules in Mr. trudea's favor, the constitutional resolution approved last week will be sent to Britain for the last act in the reform procedure.

Since Canada's Constitution, an act of the British Parliament, resides in Westminster at present, it is up to Britain to transfer it to Ottawa at Canada's request. Approval of the transfer by the British Parliament will probably be automatic if Canada's court endorses Mr. Trudeau's reform package.

Although most Canadians favor "bringing home" their governing charter from Britain, doing so has been put off for decades because of disagreements between Ottawa and the provinces on how to share federal-provincial powers under the new constitution.

Canada's provinces, which already have extensive authority under the country's loose federal system, want more control over economic and cultural matters within their boundaries.

Mr. Trudeau, on the contrary, believes a strong central government is necessary to kepp Canada united and is trying to insert in the new constitution a bill of rights guaranteeing legal, linguistic, and other freedoms for all Canadians. These guarantees would supersede the powers of the provincial legislatures.

The clash over the new Canadian constitution has become nothing short of a confrontation between starkly differing conceptions of Canada. Echoing the views of the dissenting provincial premiers, Joe Clark, the former prime minister and leader of the Progressive Conservative opposition, said recently that Mr. Trudeau's contitutional proposal, if implemented, would "rip the heart out of the federal system" and threaten the very existence of Canada.

He charges that the reform package that is about to go before the Supreme Court is "one man's obsession" -- an attempt according to Mr. Clark by Mr. Trudeau to reassert the primacy of the central government in a way that is inimical to the decentralized nature of Canada's system of government.

Disputing this, Mr. Trudeau said: "It's hard to believe that they [Canadians] will feel threatened to death or feel that the federation will be on the verge of breakup because we have finally given ourselves a constitution."

Far from sounding the kind of conciliatory note called for by Mr. Trudeau, all but two of Canada's provincial leaders have recently been criticizing the Liberal government with increased vigor. Recently reelected Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, a staunch advocate of more provincial power, continues to call Mr. Trudeau's constitutional proposals a recipe for a "coup d'etat."

Although they initiated the legal actions leading to the test case about to be heard by the Supreme Court, many of the premiers are saying the court's ruling won't necessarily mark the end of the constitutional battle.

Threatening unspecified future actions. Manitoba Premier Sterling Lyon, current spokesman for the premiers, declared, "Because the Supreme Court of Canada says something is legal, that doesn't make it right. That doesn't make it fair."

What remains to be seen is whether the new constitution, if finally entrenched in Canada, will be the unifying factor Mr. Trudeau is hoping for or w ithout it will set off a new wave of internal feuding

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