Canadian leaders reached a historic compromise agreement today that will allow Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to proceed with his plan to give this 114-year-old country its own constitution.
The agreement, hammered out in 3 1/2 days of grueling negotiations, was marred, however, by Quebec Province's refusal to go along with the other nine provinces in accepting the compromise.
This raised fears of renewed disaffection by Canada's French-speaking minority centered in Quebec. Provincial Premier Rene Levesque's Parti Quebecois government remains committed to the idea of eventual independence for Quebec, even though its drive toward that goal was quashed in a province-wide referendum last year.
Levesque said today that now "Quebec finds itself alone," a condition "that has almost become traditional in the Canadian federal regime."
The accord gives Canadians a respite from the internal bickering that in recent years has come to be characteristic of national affairs.
Coupled with recent agreements between Ottawa and three petroleum-producing provinces -- Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan -- it is expected to reduce much of the regional strain between Ottawa and the western region of the country. Among westerners now flexing the political muscle developed by oil and farm wealth, there has been a conviction that the Trudeau government has favored the more populous central regions of the country to the detriment of the west's economic interests.
Trudeau hailed the agreement as a coming of age of the Canadian nation. "This means, after 114 years, Canada will become in a technical and legal sense an independent country for once and for all," he said.
Canada, a former British colony, has had internal autonomy since 1867. But its underlying constitution, a statute of the British Parliament, has remained at Westminster because of an inability of the central government in Ottawa and the provinces to agree on the division of powers under a new constitution.
In the past 50 years, there have been 10 formal constitutional conferences, none of them successful. Last fall, in an effort to break the impasse, Trudeau said he would set up a new constitution even if he had to act without the consent of the provincial premiers, or governors.
Trudeau wanted to install a new constitution with a wide-ranging bill of rights guaranteeing basic freedoms and also with a formula for future amendments to the charter. To the provinces, this was seen as a blatant attempt by Trudeau to reassert Ottawa's role in Canada's loose federal system. Levesque, for instance, called Trudeau's package a "coup d'etat."
After six months of bitter wrangling, Trudeau agreed to put his package before Canada's Supreme Court. In September the court ruled that Trudeau's moves were legal but ran against Canadian federal traditions, a decision that lent weight to the provinces' arguments and led to this week's final attempt at compromise.
In reaching an agreement with the provinces, Trudeau said he would make significant compromises on the centerpiece of his proposed constitution, the bill of rights. As now envisioned, the provinces will be permitted to pass legislation of their own on fundamental rights such as court trial, freedom of religion and freedom from racial and sexual discrimination.
Trudeau also agreed to a formula for future amendments of the constitution that was preferred by the provinces. It will allow up to three provinces to exclude themselves from future amendments.
The package approved today included a measure of great importance to Trudeau -- the guarantee of education rights throughout Canada for French- and English-speaking people. It was this provision that led to Levesque's major objection because it would override his province's controversial language legislation intended to promote the use of French in Quebec.
In recent months, Levesque has threatened civil disobedience if a new Canadian constitution with measures binding on the Quebec government was imposed against the province's will. Similar threats by Levesque today could signal a new era of tension between the federal government and Canada's most restive province.
An opposition spokesman referred in Parliament today to Quebec's dissension as a "dark shadow" that threatens Canadian unity.
Trudeau, also expressing regret about Quebec's isolation, said the agreement was "not cast in stone" and he expressed hope that further negotiations with Quebec might lead to the Levesque government's acceptance of the constitutional package, which is subject to approval by the parliaments of Canada and Britain.
The prospect of further prolonged debate on the constitutional agreement in the Canadian Parliament arose today, as opposition spokesmen gave notice that they would seek a full debate on the terms of the new pact, particularly on Quebec's objections to it.
Despite the ruling Liberal Party's solid majority, opposition legislators successfully filibustered to block passage of the constitution resolution last spring.