Canada's native citizens are edging closer to victory in the battle for their rights. Leaders from four native organizations, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and the 10 provincial premiers, emerged from their recent meeting with an agreement to advance native rights by proposing the first changes in Canada's year-old Constitution.
''We thank the 'Great Spirit' that some of our elders have lived to experience this day,'' said one Indian chief.
The most important amendment to the Constitution will legally oblige the premiers to meet again with Canada's first peoples at least three times during the next four years in constitutional conferences like the one that just ended to discuss further the rights of Canada's Inuit (Eskimos), Indians, and Metis. The amendment will take effect as soon as the necessary legislation has been passed by at least seven of Canada's 10 provinces and the national Parliament in Ottawa.
Although native leaders had hoped for more than just a commitment to keep talking, the conference represented an important step forward in the process of having aboriginal rights recognized by the Constitution and to protect them from being removed by the whim of any future government.
A major obstacle in achieving this goal is Canada's Quebec-induced fear of separatism which is present in many aspects of Canadian political life. Provincial premiers and the national government are skeptical about the native claim for ''aboriginal title'' to the land and the demand for self-government.
Through court cases and determined lobbying the aboriginal peoples have come a long way. In 1969 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau called native rights ''historical might-have-beens.'' Now he has his signature on an accord that will likely result in constitutional recognition and protection of some of those rights.
''We only had our Constitution for less than a year,'' Mr. Trudeau said, ''and already the aboriginal people have been able to see that it be amended. . . . I would say that (they) are doing pretty well and I hope that they will continue and pick up speed.''
Some attribute the government's positive attitude to the presence of television cameras in the conference room.
''There was a great fear in the federal government that this meeting would explode politically on national TV, resulting in enforced bitterness and suspicion,'' says Doug Sanders, a professor of constitutional law at the University of British Columbia.
Beside the commitment to meet again, the ministers also agreed to constitutional protection of rights resulting from the negotiation of native land claims. The present Constitution protects only ''existing'' rights.
The Constitution will also be amended to make aboriginal rights apply equally to men and women. Until now, legislation has discriminated against women who lost their native rights if they married a non-native.
Most significant, perhaps, were the issues not agreed upon and which are now left to be resolved by the three conferences still to be held. Among them is a set of basic principles that would further qualify the nature of ''aboriginal and treaty rights'' which are already in the Constitution.
These basic principles, which were a top priority of the native leaders before the conference, would have specified that aboriginal rights include the right to a land base, the right to preserve traditional culture and language, and the right for native peoples to establish their own form of government.