The Quiet Revolution


CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT a country rife with political conflict and uneven economic development, tugged in opposite directions by competing social forces and different levels of government; a country confronting entrenched traditions while trying to focus on the future. Then take this abstract model and apply it to the place of your choice--chances are, the last country you would choose is directly north.

They're not rioting in the streets of Sherbrooke or burning buildings in Victoria. They're not building up an extensive military arsenal in the nation's capital or steeling themselves for struggle in the rural towns. Instead, Canada is undergoing a quiet revolution, with the country's leader trying to "patriate" the constitution and the provincial premiers attempting to thwart at all cost a peculiar brand of federalism.

Canada was born, and has remained for 113 years, a confederation. This term has a double-edged meaning: "a league or compact for mutual support or common action"--an alliance; and, "a combination of persons for unlawful purposes"--a conspiracy. Never has the tension between these two definitions appeared so poignant as this fall. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, frustrated in a September conference with the provincial premiers, has vowed to take unilateral action in the federal parliament without consent of the provinces. Only one regional premier--Willeam Davis of Ontario, the province with the most to gain from the constitutional reform--supports Trudeau's most recent proposals, which include:

*Taking control of the 1867 British North America Act from Britain;

*Enshrining in the constitution a charter of rights, including minority language rights and the rights of Canadians to live and work in any province;


*Formalizing the principle of equalization--sharing between rich and poor provinces; and,

*Establishing a temporary amending formula based on unanimous agreement between Ottawa and the provinces before something less unwieldy is approved, by referendum if necessary.

This week, Canada's ten provincial premiers huddled contentiously in a downtown Toronto hotel to find some way to obstruct or reform Trudeau's latest package, which he hopes to present to the British government by early 1981. Premier Rene Levesque of Quebec, head of the separatist party that decisively lost a plebiscite last spring on the right to negotiate with Ottawa for sovereignty-association, characteristically produced the most biting quote. He called Trudeau's plan a "proposed coupt d'etat."

THE END RESULT of this week's Toronto powwow was a decision by five provincial premiers to challenge Trudeau's resolutions--which will easily pass in the national parliament by virtue of a Liberal majority--in the courts.

Since the seven premiers' legal challenge cannot go directly to Canada's Supreme Court without approval of the federal government, Trudeau's adversaries will have to appeal in provincial courts first. But Trudeau has displayed his usual cunning aplomb, forcing the premiers into a sticky Catch-22. His actions cannot be challenged by the premiers until the resolution favoring his package takes effect; and by the time his plan takes effect, the premiers will be paralyzed. It is difficult to imagine--say in mid-1981 after a glorious ceremony whereby the Queen hands the country its constitution--the premiers going to court in search of a ruling that would have the constitution shipped back across the Atlantic.

The detached observer will justifiably wonder what all the fuss is about. Surely an enlightened, well-educated populace would want its own constitution, complete with a Bill of Rights and the principle of equality at its center. But a vast country with a heritage of regionalism does not easily succumb to more powerful federal government. The western provinces, newly-rich in oil, have long resented eastern industrial eities like Toronto, which for a long time held an inordinate piece of the economic pie. The Maritime provinces, traditionally the weakest economically, fear that greater centralization could jeopardize their already tenuous position. And Levesque stands to gain the most personally from a country in disarray; he could then tell his constituency that Quebec would better be able to fend for itself by seceding.

Almost ironically, Canadian voters have struck an odd balance of power. At the federal level, Trudeau won a majority, toppling Conservative leader Joe Clark's minority government after only nine months. But among the provincial premiers, not one belongs to a provincial Liberal party. In Quebec, the federal Liberals' stronghold, Levesque holds forth as the second-most popular politician--behind Trudeau--and the provincial leader determined to lead the anti-federalist camp. In a strange fashion, Canada has demonstrated checks and balances without a constitution.

THE FOLLOWING SCENARIO then becomes absurdly likely: Trudeau flies Air Canada to meet Margaret Thatcher, and the rest of the premiers traveling overseas on Canadian Pacific Air to lobby the British parliament. Sending a delegation to Britain in an attempt to stymie Trudeau may have its laughable side, but the hardline premiers will not easily give up the idea even if Trudeau makes further concessions.

Particularly cloying to the provinces is Trudeau's proposal of a temporary amending formula. It would probably take several protracted negotiation sessions, maybe years, to hammer out an acceptable permanent formula, and in the interim the provinces would feel they lacked leverage in federal-provincial relations. Perhaps the single most important reason for the provincial premiers' refusal to perform the obvious and assent to a constitution, however, is local political pressure. None of the premiers, save Davis, can afford to appear "soft" in defending provincial interests; none can allow Trudeau to steal center stage.

For his part, Trudeau just wants to install a constitution, host next summer's economic summit in Montreal, and get out of politics with his name etched gloriously in history. He has long since abandoned his image of flair for one of jaded wisdom. When September's negotiations between the provinces and the federal government broke down, Trudeau sketched himself as elder statesman converged on by a group of angry, self-serving opportunists. While Levesque scored the most short-term points by saying "I told you so," Trudeau emerged as a voice of reason--troubled yet firm. He could call for a national referendum on whether to bring the constitution home, with a good shot at success. But he feels his recently-won majority mandate is enough for him to schedule a trip to Britain on Royal Canadian Air Force One (which presumably will soon be called Canadian Air Force One). In the purest of senses, he is right--it is time for Canada to have a constitution of its own.

BUT, THAT DOES NOT diminish the undercurrent of change, the quiet revolution. Court battles on the constitution's particulars could last years. Paradoxically, a new constitution would offer strong provincial premiers a central outlet for griping, an unmoveable target. The national Conservatives could play on local sentiment and run a Reagan-like campaign, pledging to "restore" power to the provinces. Levesque's Parti Quebecois will doubtless try to capitalize on any pro-Anglophone or pro-West articles in the constitution; other provinces could rail against concessions to Quebec. The possibility of a wealthy province like Alberta withdrawing from a revised federation is greater then many think. Variations on Levesque's "sovereignty-association" formula for secession may prove the wave of the future.

Meanwhile, citizens continue to despair over the Montreal Expos' baseball failure and to follow the American presidential race with a studied cynicism. The voter worries more about pressing economic problems than the wording and nature of a document. But Canadians may be in the midst of the revolution they never had. As Trudaeu realizes better than his counterparts, revolutions leave little middle ground.

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