Canada free at last?
It has been 114 years since the British Parliament, fearing an expansionist United States, united four original British colonies north of the American border to form Canada. Yet to this day Canada's constitution resides in Britain and Canada must ask the British Parliament to make any changes it wants in the charter. No other independent country functions in this manner. It is therefore significant that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has finally reached agreement with the nine leaders of the English-speaking provinces on a new constitution. If the agreement is approved by the Canadian Parliament - and then Westminster - Canada will have taken another step on the difficult road of strengthening its federal system.
However, it would be a rocky beginning for the new constitution if the tenth province - French-speaking Quebec - remained a holdout. Mr. Trudeau and his compatriots should bend every effort to winning over provincial premier Rene Levesque, who has denounced the new accord. This will not be easy. Quebec has been zealously guarding the purity of its unique culture and is resistant to what it sees as encroachments on its legislative jurisdiction. But, in the interests of avoiding further moves toward separatism and fostering national unity, Quebeckers, too, ought to summon up a spirit of compromise.
The main issue is a section of the proposed bill of rights guaranteeing the English-speaking minority in Quebec and the French-speaking minority in other provinces the right to education in their own language. To any outsider, such a provision seems only fair for both minorities. Canada, after all, is a bilingual federation. It is true that French-speaking Quebeckers in the past suffered considerable cultural and economic discrimination in their own province. One can therefore understand Quebec's determination to preserve its French heritage and its reluctance to do anything which promotes the minority culture.
But now that the English-speaking provinces have agreed to provide French-language education where numbers warrant, it is not asking too much that Quebec willingly perform similar service for its sizeable English-speaking minority. It is hardly to the credit of French Quebeckers that, having been unjustly treated themselves, they now are practicing discrimination. Quebec makes French the sole official language of the province, for instance, and English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec are generally prohibited from sending their children to English schools if they move to the province.
It is to be hoped that common sense and reason are not lost in the emotions of the moment - emotions generated also by the way in which Mr. Trudeau negotiated the new charter, in effect isolating Quebec from the English-speaking provinces and offering the latter major concessions. Many believe that Mr. Levesque, rankled by such tactics, may now press for a separatist referendum. Other Quebec voices, however, are moderate and forthcoming. Provincial opposition leader Claude Ryan, for one, has called the accord ''a breakthrough'' for federalism.
The question, as Ottawa debates the reform, is whether the people of Quebec will be swayed by nationalistic parochialism or rise to a larger vision of what Canada is and can be. They might reckon that even Mr. Trudeau, who has such a vision, obtained only a weakened version of what he sought. That is the way of democracy and statehood; it requires give and take and, in the end, a spirit of conciliation that transcends narrow interest.
Do the people of Canada really consider themselves Canadians? If so, they will surely - all of them - make the adjustments need-ed to bring their constitution home at last.