Canada is in the midst of a constitutional identity crisis revolving about a fundamental aspect of any democratic society-a bill of rights.

The Canadians do have a bill of rights, but it is a simple legislative act which leaves politicians who control the Parliament in the position of being ultimate arbiters of both legislative and legal matters.

Now, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is trying to place a bill of rights into a new constitution and make the role of the judiciary within Canada's system, which was patterned alter Britain's, more akin to that of the United States.

If adopted, the constitutional change would have little immediate effect on the lives of average Canadians, who enjoy freedoms as extensive as Americans.

But the move would give Canadian courts a wider role than they have ever, played before and at the same time insulate them from the political process. Trudeau appears to be seeking to make courts-rather than federal and local governments-arbitrate difficult issues before this deeply divided country.

A constitutional bill of rights would enable citizens to appeal to the courts legislative actions which they believe infringe on matters such as language instruction in schools, freedom of speech and mobility within Canada.

Should the judiciary become an independent and final arbiter on such matters, supporters of the change believe that it would strengthen Canada's federation and provide it with a credible forum to deal with ethnic disputes.

But the proposal is making some Canadian lawyers and politicians nervous.

Both supporters and opponents are now dragging the U.S. experience into Canada's political debate. Such has invariably been the case when Canadians grapple with constitutional reforms.

In 1867, when Canada received its independence from Britain, the country's Fathers of Confederation used the U.S. Constitution and federal system as yardsticks in drafting a new constitution for Canada.

The fathers, profundly attached to the British system of government and horrified by the American Civil War, retained the British monarchy and parliamentary government. But some parts of the resulting Canadian constitution-notable the division of powers between the federal and local government-drew inspiration from the U.S. system.

The current arguments here center on the role of the judiciary in the United States.

"Look at the history of the U.S. Supreme Court," Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, a Rhodes scholar and leader of Canada's only Social Democratic government, said.

"They struck down minimum wage laws for decades. That, in my judgment, is the Supreme Court discriminating against a minority group. There is no necessary reason for believing that supreme courts will bring a more enlightened or compassionate or socially conscious view to bear on public issues."

Those supporting Trudeau's idea take a diametrically opposite interpretation of the role played by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul Weiler, a former chairman of the British Columbia Labor Relations Board and now a visiting professor at Harvard, argues that Canadian courts have been far too timid in ruling on controversial political matters.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court tackled both abortion and capital punishment, using the U.S. Constitution as its guide. In Canada, the Supreme Court essentially backed away from both issues, saying they were for legislatures alone to decide.

"Our most activist judge would be considered the most restrictive member of the U.S. Supreme Court," Weiler said.

While critics of the Trudeau proposal point to regressive decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, defenders of his proposal herald landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the area of civil rights and freedom of the press.

The recent Bakke case has split Canadian politicians. Some see the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling as another example of the judiciary striking down progressive legislation, in this case affirmative action programs. Others see the Bakke decision as a perfect example of the judiciary guiding legislatures in protecting rights.

The Canadian legal fraternity is as divided as the country's politicians on the proposed constitutional changes, although the Canadian Bar Association supports the idea.

"United States experience demonstrates that courts adapt to new realities, particularly when there is a clause indicating that the rights spelled out are not exclusive," the bar association said.