Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's long feud with Canada's powerful provincial governments seems destined to reach a climax in the next few months now that Trudeau has elected to write a new constitution without them.
The premiers, who have been unable to agree wth Trudeau on the elements of a new governing charter for Canada, are angrily gathering forces to contest the Liberal government's attempt to install a constitution over their heads.
Last week Trudeau announced his government would act on its own to "bring back" Canada's constitution from Britain, where it now resides as an 1867 act of the British Parliament. Once it is back the government intends to write in a new bill of rights, a formula for constitutional amendments and other provisions binding on the provinces. His plan was formally presented to Parliament yesterday.
Conservative opposition leader Joe Clark greeted Trudeau's move by saying that "no proposal in my time here has alarmed me more than the proposal before us now." To give Ottawa the right to amend the constitution without provincial approval, Clark said, could "destroy the federal system."
Trudeau's action flies in the face of provincial interests. The 10 provincial governments have for decades demanded a say in the drafting of a new constitution, which they want to cede more power to them at the expense of Ottawa's authority.
"We will fight back in any way we can divise," said Peter Lougheed, premier of Alberta, the oil-rich, western Canadian province that has been fighting Ottawa over control of domestic oil prices.
In Quebec, Trudeau appears to face a fight on two fronts. As expected, Rene Levesque, premier of the French-speaking province and a long-time advocate of greater provincial power, pledged to oppose the new constitution vigorously. At the same time, Claude Ryan, leader of Quebec's Liberal Party and a Trudeau ally, announced he would also contest Trudeau's action on the grounds that Ottawa should not be proceeding alone on this issue.
Trudeau's lone outspoken supporter was Ontario, the populous central Canadian province that, as the country's largest oil consumer, needs strong federal government action to offset efforts by the western provinces to keep raising domestic oil prices.
How the provinces will mount their protest campaign will not be known until after a meeting of provincial leaders that is expected to be held in Toronto later this month.
The most likely means include legal actions, provincial government-sponsored advertising campaigns and appeals to the British government not to approve Trudeau's plans.
The most fertile ground for provincial action is in the west, where alienation from the Trudeau government is deep and longstanding, and in Quebec, where the new constitution appears to threaten that province's legislation mandating French-language education for most Quebecers.
The constitutional package is being presented to Parliament in the form of a resolution. With a majority in both houses, the Liberals seem certain to win approval of the resolution.