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Canada's constitution nearer home

Canada's long-disputed resolution to give itself a new constitution has cleared a major hurdle. But the Dec. 2 historic vote in the Canadian Parliament, greeted with cheers and song by English-speaking Canadians, prompted flags to be flown at half-mast in Quebec and brought dire warnings of further conflict between that French-speaking province and the rest of Canada.

The House of Commons, capping more than a year of bitter debate on this issue , voted 246-24 in favor of a proposal that would end this country's peculiar status as a nation without its own constitution.

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But this triumphal moment for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who has sought throughout his career to give this former British colony a purely Canadian governing charter, was soured because Quebec, alone among Canada's 10 provinces, has refused to back the new constitutional package.

Only hours before the Common's vote, Quebec Premier Rene Levesque vowed to go to court in a final effort to block Trudeau's constitutional moves. And, as a symbol of Quebec's resistance, Levesque ordered all flags on public buildings in the province to fly at half-staff.

Levesque, who considers certain provisions in the constitutional package to be an infringement on his province's rights, labeled the House of Common's vote ''an affront to Quebeckers by English Canada.'' He reiterated warnings that his government will never comply with Mr. Trudeau's constitutional proposals even though they have the backing of the other nine Canadian provinces.

The isolation of Quebec, whose six-million mainly French-speaking residents, comprise one quarter of the country's 24 million population, has revived fears that Quebec will break away from the Canadian Federation and precipitate the nation's disintegration.

The influential Montreal paper Le Devoir said the vote represented ''a fatal day'' for Canada. And opposition party leaders said Quebec must be accommodated in the new constitutional arrangement if Canadian unity is to be preserved.

Mr. Trudeau was silent Dec. 2, but Jean Chretien, the Liberal justice minister said the Common's vote was ''a fantastic development.'' However, Mr. Chretien, a Quebecker, said he was sad that his home province had rejected the proposal.

The resolution will now go to the Canadian Senate where approval is assured, which will allow the British Parliament to give its expected approval by early next year. Most observers strongly doubt that Quebec's legal challenge can succeed in stalling Trudeau's timetable for constitutional change, but if the Canadian Supreme Court hears the case, it might call into question the whole constitutional process.

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