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Canada court sequel: internal crisis or new constitutional conference?

Canadians face another period of uncertain federal-provincial relations in the wake of this week's historic high court decision. The possibilities range from a new constitutional conference to internal crisis.

Buoyed by the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling Sept. 28 that his constitutional plans were legal, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said he had "no alternative but to press on" with his effort to install a new governing charter for the nation against the wishes of many of the powerful provincial premiers.

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But Mr. Trudeau held out a slender olive branch to the premiers. Eschewing his usually combative pose, the prime minister said Sept. 28 he would push ahead with constitutional plans, but "prudently." And he said he might be willing to renew negotiations with provincial leaders on the constitution if there was a likelihood of compromise.

The possibility of a final try at talking out the deep-seated differences between Ottawa and the provinces on this issue arose from the lack of clarity in the Supreme Court's judgment. While the court gave Trudeau a legal go-ahead to write a new charter without provincial consent, it said just as forcefully that doing so would be contrary to the country's federal traditions and therefore "unconstitutional in the conventional sense."

That aspect of the court's ruling provided ample ammunition for the eight provincial premiers opposed to Trudeau's efforts.

Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, commenting on Trudeau's avowed intention to proceed despite the court's ambiguous ruling, accused the Liberal Party government of showing "contempt" for democracy. The premier, who advocates Quebec independence, repeated his assertion that what Trudeau is doing is actually "a coup d'etat."

Other provincial governments, with the exception of Trudeau's two allies -- New Brunswick and Ontario -- also claimed the court's ruling bolstered their opposition to what the federal government wants to do. William Bennett, premier of British Columbia and the spokesmen for the dissident provincial leaders, threatened "tough action" by the provinces unless the Trudeau government now takes a more conciliatory tack.

That threat raises the specter of another round of intense bickering and political struggle between the two sides in this debate, which has been waged sporadically in Canada for five decades. Massive anti-Ottawa advertising campaigns and possible provincial plebiscites similar to the independence referendum held in Quebec last year are being considered by angry provincial leaders.

But Bennett said he would try to bring the two sides to the bargaining table.

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While heartened by such words, most observers still believe there is only the slimmest hope of reconciling Trudeau and his provincial opponents, whose last talks ended in deadlock in September 1980.

When the talks failed to produce consensus on what a new charter should contain, the Trudeau government announced it would install a new constitution on its own. This means asking Britain, where the charter now resides, to transfer the act to Canada.

Few Canadians object to that, but Mr. Trudeau also asked the British Parliament to install in the new, all-Canadian Constitution a Bill of Rights and a formula for arriving at future amendments. The provincial leaders object to the Bill of Rights, which would reduce the powers of the provincial legislatures.

The premiers see the Trudeau moves as an attempt to tip the scales in Ottawa's favor in the long federal-provincial struggle over division of powers.

Failing new negotiations, one possibility now is that some of the premiers will mount a noisy lobby in London in hopes of keeping Britain from passing the Constitution back to Canada.

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