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The Americans rightly revere their founding fathers; the American constitution is a magnificent thing. The Fathers of Confederation, on the other hand, should have been horsewhipped.

Maybe it was the champagne at Charlottetown, or the rain at Quebec. But the framers of the British North America Act bequeathed Canada one of the democratic world's worst constitutions.

Thanks to them, the premiers arrived here yesterday for their annual conference of complaining, 113 years after Quebec premier Honoré Mercier convened the first one, with agendas that are essentially identical: the need for increased federal funding to shore up provincial budgets.

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Unless the underlying cause of the complaint is fixed, the agenda in Iqaluit in 2113 will doubtless seem wearyingly familiar.

Our befuddled founding fathers couldn't agree how much power to give the federal government, and how much to give the provinces.

While Sir John A. Macdonald wanted Ottawa's powers to be absolute, other representatives were determined to preserve the virtual self-government that their respective colonies enjoyed.

In the noble tradition of committees everywhere, the Fathers preserved the worst of both alternatives. They gave the federal government most of the power, especially the power to tax, and the provincial governments most of the responsibility. And so there was Mr. Mercier in 1887, demanding a new deal for the provinces, most of whom were teetering on insolvency. Their major source of revenue was licence fees (no government had yet come up with the crazy notion of taxing income), yet they were responsible for schools, roads and sanitation.

Ottawa, awash in cash from customs revenues, wasn't responsible for much of anything. But Macdonald, now prime minister, refused to increase provincial grants, at least not without strings.

More than a century later, there was Ontario Premier Mike Harris calling the lack of federal funding for health care a "a disgrace" and demanding the restoration of funding to 1994 levels, an infusion of $4.2-billion. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, however, knows his role: No new grants without strings.

Politically or financially weak provinces often bow to federal pressure; they need the money. And so British Columbia Premier Ujjal Dosanjh, Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow and Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin appear ready to accept an expansion of the federal role in setting standards in health care.

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But Ontario and Quebec -- not to mention Alberta -- will never agree. And when Ontario and Quebec are in accord, as they have been on health policy for several years, Ottawa's strings invariably unravel. While Mr. Harris's comments to reporters were ambiguous yesterday -- and federal officials apparently took heart that Ontario might agree to new standards -- they are hallucinating if they think the Ontario Premier will accept any federal constraints in health-care delivery.

Besides, as Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard observed, provincial pressure is working. After years of stonewalling, Mr. Chrétien, faced with hostile premiers and an imminent election, has agreed in principle to a cash infusion.

"We have the federal government on the hook," Mr. Bouchard maintained. "There is no way that we have to compromise. It is the duty of this government to give back this money to us in the full respect of our jurisdiction."

He's right. If this country were being run properly, Ottawa would permanently surrender much of its taxing authority to the provinces, so that they could raise the money for the services they provide. Ottawa's social-policy role should be limited to negotiating equalization programs to help poorer provinces match rich-province standards.

But that will never happen. The premiers and the Prime Minister will continue this war of attrition, the provinces clawing at Ottawa, Ottawa snapping back, the public wishing the West Nile virus on both their houses.

U.S. state governors don't meet each year to demand a rebalancing of the American union. The Swiss cantons aren't in perpetual uproar concerning the powers of Bern.

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No one else goes through quite the same constitutional contortions that Canada endures. For that, we have the Fathers of Confederation to thank. They should take Macdonald off the $10 bill.

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