Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

British hang on in tug of war over Canada's Constitution

It is rare nowadays for constitutional alarm belts to ring in Buckingham Palace, but they are ringing now. Officials at court say Queen Elizabeth is deeply worried that the Crown may be buffeted in an argument between her governments at Westminster and in Ottawa over "patriation" of the Canadian Constitution.

A plan by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to get the British Parliament to cancel the British North America Act of 1867 and thus give Canada control of its own Constitution is the cause of royal concern.

About these ads

Mr. Trudeau's proposal, still not presented formally, is running into trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.

In London, Parliament has so far responded rather sullenly to signals from Mr. Trudeau that he is about to request permission to have the Canadian Constitution shipped back home. A House of Commons select committee has found that the Canadian leader's plan threatens to violate the existing rights of the provinces.

This view appears to be shared by a growing number of MPs, and it will be the votes of Westminster parliamentarians that decide the fate of the Trudeau plan.

Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at first hoped that Mr. Trudeau would be able simply to request patriation of the Constitution and that the House of Commons, just as simply, would grant the request.

Now, however, her government appears to be at the center of a tug of war between Mr. Trudeau and the provincial leaders of Canada.

If Mrs. Thatcher's position is under pressure, that of the Queen is even more so. Her Majesty is Queen of both the United Kingdom and Canada.

The monarchy is thus in danger of being tugged two ways. The Queen is reported to be monitoring every twist and turn of the question, aware that if there is a political argument between London and Ottawa on a fundamental constitutional issue, her own position will be compromised.

About these ads

The Queen is also head of the multinational British Commonwealth, and here, too, ramifications of the argument are being felt. Fears are being expressed in Commonwealth capitals that the Canadian problem may erupt onto the agenda at the Commonwealth summit in Australia in October.

The political atmosphere has not been helped by some hair-trigger Canadian responses to the issues.Sir John Ford, Britain's envoy in ottawa, was accused of meddling in Canadian affairs after he tried to explain British policy to Canadian politicians. He has been retired one year early.

Canada's high commissioner in London, Jean Wadds, then accused British government officials of tapping her telephones in an effort to discern Canadian government policy on the patriation question. David Milne reports from Ottawa:

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appears to have been surprised by the stubborness of British politicians on the issue of handing over Canada's Constitution.

Such interference is anathema to trudeau, whose 12 years in power have been largely oriented toward trying to modernize Canadian political structures by centralizing economic authority in Ottawa. To this end he has been unsuccessful , failing to win the unanimous provincial support that has traditionally been deemed mandatory for such change.

Last week, Trudeau took the offensive. His initial jibes about the "empire" striking back seemed somewhat misplaced, however, until Sir John Ford, Britain's controversial high commissioner, took to the stage.

In one press conference, the high commissioner by his words and manner did more to rally public support for Mr. Trudeau's faltering patriation plans than the prime minister could have prayed for.

Sir John was accused of using the occasion of an Ottawa skating party last week to warn two Canada New Democratic Party members that Trudeau's proposal might not pass the British Parliament. The 32 new Democrats in the Canadian House of Commons are supporting the Liberal plan.

Oddly, Sir John failed to introduce himself to the two party-goers. When they suggested this was not the story they had been hearing from senior British officials, Sir John explained, "I am telling you. . . . I'm the British high commissioner."

The Liberals leaped on this as blatant British interference in a solely Canadian matter and launched an unprecedented parliamentary investigation of the incident.

When Sir John called a press conference to explain his side of the matter, his problems compounded as television cameras captured his somewhat condescending manner toward the Canadian question.

One normally pacific columnist for the Ottawa Citizen described the high commissioner as "leaning back in his chair at one point, his hands behind his head, relaxed, confident, and completely out of his depth."

Justice Minister Jean Chretien, charged with quarterbacking Mr. Trudeau's constitutional proposals, told reporters later that he would have based an advertising campaign supporting Trudeau's intiatives on this picture of apparent British insouciance.

But behind the somewhat buffoonish mask, Sir John's warning was, indeed, grave. He warned of "a serious danger the Canadian Parliament is being directed on a collision course with the British Parliament." He further suggested it would be a "very great mistake" to believe Britain would rubber-stamp Trudeau's proposals.

The issue now appears destined to come to a head in early summer. By late April the Liberal-controlled Parliament will likely forward to Britain its resolution appealing for patriation.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.