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Provinces taking Trudeau to court over charter plan

A major internal confrontation that might split Canada apart seemed to draw another step closer this week as many of Canada's provincial governors vowed to take concerted action against Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's go-it-alone stance on a few constitution.

Reacting to Mr. Trudeau's plan to draft a governing charter for Canada without their consent, five provincial government heads agreed in a meeting in Toronto to mount a joint challenge in the courts to Ottawa's constitutional manuever.

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The five -- British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and Newfoundland -- represent a formidable cross section of Canada's 10 provinces. Two more provinces -- Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia -- are expected to joint the common front soon.

The announced court action is the most recent development in a power struggle between Trudeau's national government and the powerful provincial premiers that has been gathering force since early September, when a week of negotiations failed to produce a breakthrough on constitutional issues.

After that, Mr. Trudeau announced he would take the job of writing a new constitution into his own hands. Since Canada's government charter is an 1867 act of the British Parliament, this means "bringing home" the constitution to Canada, something Trudeau wants to accomplish by next summer.

That this country's fundamental law still resides in Britain has become a bit of a national scandal. Thus, Mr. Trudeau has wide support for "patriating" the constitution. Much of it comes from Ontario, the country's most populous province. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan also have refused to join in the legal challenge.

But Mr. Trudeau has raised the ire of the other provinces because, in addition to "bringing home" the British North America Act, he wants to install a broad-based bill of rights that would be binding on provincial governments, as well as adding a number of other provisions to the new charter.

Many of the premiers see the bill of rights as an attempt by Trudeau to force new controls on them. Their reaciton is all the more volatile because of years of disenchantment within the Canadian confederation.

The recently formed common front of provinces has raised hopes among some of the discontented premiers that the British Parliament might not go along with Mr. Trudeau's request.

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"The United Kingdom will become extremely concerned after they see 70 percent of the provinces opposed to unilateral action [by Trudeau]," said Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford after the Toronto conference.

But whether the court challenge will have any effect on the British government or, more important, succeed in winning a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court that would derail the Trudeau constitutional plan remains very much a matter of speculation.

Exactly what form the provinces' legal challenge will take is to be decided in a meeting of top legal officers of the five committed provinces within the next week.

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