Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau took the politically risky decision tonight to pursue on his own a constitution with broad powers after the nation's 10 provincial premiers failed to agree among themselves on such a step.
Trudeau went on National television to announce the move, which seems certain to meet with vigorous opposition from the powerful premiers. They have given notice that they will oppose any attempt by the government in Ottawa to incorporate a constitution without their prior consent.
Under Trudeau's proposal, Canada will go to the British -- who retain Canada's current charter because this former colony could never agree on a home-grown one -- for inclusion of a U.S.-style bill of rights to be enforced by the federal government.
Canadians must "find a way of breaking out of 53 years of constitutional paralysis" said Trudeau.
Canada's current constitution, the British North American Act, was passed by the British Parliament in 1867. Disagreements between Canada's fedarela and provincial governments have frustrated repeated attemps to "bring home" the charter and Trudeau saw the most recent effort -- a six-day conference in early September -- end in deadlock.
Once the Canadian Parliament approves Trudeau's plan his government is to send a resolution to Britian in effect asking the parliament in London to amend the British North American Act and then transfer it to Canadian jurisdiction.
The key feature of the Trudeau proposals would be the Canadian bill of rights. Such a written guarantee of basic freedoms would be a historic departure of Canada, where protections for individual rights have been derived from British legal traditions.
The suggested charter of rights would guarantee freedoms of conscience and religion, freedom of the press, legal rights and freedom from racial discrimination.
These rights would be binding on the legislatures of Canada's provincial governments, a crucial point in the national debate certain to emerge in coming weeks.
Many of the provinces object strongly to a written bill of rights, contending that such freedoms are better protected by elected representatives than in the courts.
Because the new charter would include guarantees for French and English-speaking minorities to be educated in their own languages, it is expected to encounter particularly stiff resistance in the French-speaking province of Quebec. The proposed constitution would conflict directly with Quebec's legislation restricting English schooling.
While some of the proposals probably will exacerbate the Liberal Party government's already strained relations with the provinces, other aspects seem tailored to obtain at least the partial approval of the provincial premiers.
For instance, the suggested formula for amending the constitution -- once it becomes Canadian law -- is that, for the next two years, unanimous agreement between Ottawa and the provinces would be necessary to alter the governing charter. This should assuage provincial fears that their interests might be bypassed.
Trudeau said the shift of power to the provinces in recent years had led the country "toward a radically new concept of Canada, one in which the national good was merely the sum total of provincial demands.
"Canadians cannot accept that kind of Canada. It would not be the kind of Canada we know, much less the kind of Canada we want. It would be 10 countries each seeking advantage over the others without any means of seeking the good of all," he declared.
After last month's negotiations with the provincial premiers broke down, Trudeau let it be known that he would follow through with his earlier threat to act without provincial consent.
What remained to be learned was how broad a constitutional package Trudeau would present for Parliament's approval. Tonight's proposals seemed to guarantee some months of political uncertainty.
The main federal opposition, the Progressive Conservative Party, has said it will protest independent action on this matter by Trudeau, opening the way for explosive debates when Parliament resumes Monday. The Trudeau government will also probably be attacked by the western Canadian provinces, where his party is weak and federal initiatives are generally unpopular.
This latest effort to solve the constitutional problem began last May during the campaign leading up to a referendum on the future of Quebec. The government of Quebec asked for a mandate to separate from Canada. Trudeau's promise of speedy action to revise Canada's constitutional system was an important factor leading to the defeat of the independence proposal in the referendum.
After the Quebec vote, however, widespread support across the country for joint action on the constitution dissipated and by September Quebec had joined most of the other provinces in opposition to Ottawa's view of what a new constitution should contain. The provinces sought more power over resources, fisheries and other matters and joined together to object to the bill of rights favored by Trudeau.