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CANADA CONSTITUTION. Quebec to sign on dotted line

Barring a last-minute hitch, Quebec will sign the Canadian Constitution today in Ottawa. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers have to agree over lunch on ``the fine print'' of an accord they reached April 30 at Meech Lake, Quebec.

Debate over that accord heated up last week when former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau charged it would weaken federal authority and ``render the Canadian state totally impotent.''

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Mr. Trudeau's lengthy statement brought to an end the former Liberal Party leader's three years of self-imposed silence. It contained enough political vitriol to center attention on the rhetoric rather than on Trudeau's different vision of the Canadian federation.

``He defeated his own argument,'' says an official in Mr. Mulroney's office. Trudeau wants a strong central government in Canada.

Mulroney, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, sees a more cooperative system of power sharing and consultation between federal and provincial governments.

Some of the constitutional amendments now being considered would require such consultation and, indeed, enhance provincial powers. But much of the language is vague and may require interpretation by the courts.

It is this vagueness that has led Quebec to raise some questions of language at today's meeting of ``First Ministers.''

When Canada brought home its Constitution from the United Kingdom in 1982, making it part of Canadian rather than British law, only Quebec refused to sign. The province was then governed by a party pledged to ``separatism,'' rather than closer unity with Canada.

Since then, however, the Parti Qu'eb'ecois has lost power in Quebec, and the current Liberal Party government would like to put the constitutional issue behind it.

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As Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa demanded, the Meech Lake accord recognizes French-speaking Quebec as a ``distinct society.'' It imposes on the federal Parliament and provincial legislatures a commitment to preserve the fundamental characteristics of Canada, ``the existence of French-speaking Canada, centered in but not limited to Quebec, and English-speaking Canada, concentrated outside Quebec, but also present in Quebec.''

Mr. Bourassa wants the wording tight enough so that the courts will interpret it in the Quebec government's favor should a dispute arise over, say, language issues in the province. The other provinces do not mind a vague statement of the political realities arising from Canada's two official languages. But they want to ensure that the rights of Quebec's English-speaking minority are protected.

Another wording issue to be resolved concerns shared-cost programs of the provinces and federal government.

Once these matters are settled and the document signed, the agreement must be ratified by the federal and provincial legislatures.

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