Trudeau keeps door ajar for compromise
Ottawa — Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's invitation to Canada's restive provincial premiers for a meeting next Tuesday (Oct.13) is a final attempt to thrash out a compromise on Trudeau's hotly disputed plan for a new constitution.
But Mr. Trudeau, who is in Australia for the Commonwealth leaders meeting, said he intends to push ahead with his efforts to secure a new governing charter as soon as possible unless there is a breakthrough next Tuesday in his long-stalled negotiations with the provincial leaders.
His announcement follows a crucial meeting Oct. 5 with Britain's Margaret Thatcher on Canada's constitutional problems. The meeting ended ambiguously, adding to the confusion and tumult that his explosive constitutional debate has created.
Although Mr. Trudeau won an assurance from Mrs. Thatcher that she would not shirk putting his constitutional measures before the British Parliament, he failed to get her commitment to ensure speedy passage of the constitutional package.
This uncertainty added to the fast-growing political storm here, where eight of the country's 10 provincial governors are waging a dramatic, 11th-hour campaign to slow Mr. Trudeau's timeable for constitutional change.
Canada's current governing charter, a holdover from colonial days, is an 1867 act of the British Parliament, and Canada must obtain British approval of a new contitution. Ordinarily only a formality, this approval may now be a problem since some British members of Parliament are opposed to what Mr. Trudeau is trying to do.
Since the Canadian Supreme Court issued a complicated decision on the issue Sept. 28, a bitter debate over the Constitution has taken on an even more disturbing, angry tone, and questions are once more being raised about the survival of the Canadian federation.
The court's decision, which is open to conflicting interpretation, has worsened an already highly volatile situation. On the one hand, the nine judges gave their stamp of approval to the Trudeau government's attempt to set up a new constitution. However, they also declared it politically and morally wrong for Mr. Trudeau to go ahead with his plan in the face of widespread objections from provincial governments.
The ruling had the effect of strengthening Mr. Trudeau's determination to push ahead and, at the same time, fueling his opponents' will to stop him.
It has touched off a week of hectic activity across the nation. Canadians now seem even more divided and unsure about the future than at any time in the past 16 months of troubled debate on the Constitution.
In the unusual front-page editorial, the country's largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, said the court ruling had led to "a major deterioration in the political atmosphere of the nation."
The big question now is: What is Mr. Trudeau's next step? Having gotten the Supreme Court's legal OK for his constitutional package, he said he intends to move quickly for British approval.
However, Mr. Trudeau has also left the door ajar for a possible final round of discussions with the eight provincial leaders opposed to the constitutional package.
"I'm open to discussions on the substance of the resolution as long as it is not emasculated," Mr. Trudeau said last week. But he added that the dissident provincial leaders would have to come to him with suggestions for compromise, not the other way around.
Pressure has been steadily piling up for the Liberal Party government to slow its constitutional drive. The New Democrats a small, left-leaning party, rescinded its previous support for the Trudeau package unless a constitutional convention is held. The New Democrats' support is important because of the party's representation in western Canada, where the Liberals are extremely weak. s
Among the provinces, most of which object to the constitutional package because they believe it will undercut their power in Canada's federal system, the reaction was most pronounced in French-speaking Quebec. The government of Premier Rene Levesque, an avowed Quebec nationalist opposed to further cooperation with Ottawa, convened a special session of the provincial legislature to pass a motion condemning Mr. Trudeau's plans.
In a surprise twist, Claude Ryan, the Quebec Liberal Party leader who joined with Mr. trudeau in 1980 to defeat the movement for Quebec independence, this time sided with Mr. Levesque. This moved produced consternation within the Liberal Party.
Even if Mr. Trudeau acceeds to provincial demands for further discussions on the Constitution, the likelihood of a compromise is slim. Thus, the outlook is for what one columnist called a period of "interminably squabbling" between Ottawa and the provinces if the new governing charter is brought back from Britain in its current form.