MONTREAL — Canada stands on the edge of unknown territory as Quebec's voters decide today whether to endorse breaking away from the rest of the country.
Campaign leaders on both sides--Prime Minister Jean Chretien for the forces of national unity and opposition party leader Lucien Bouchard for the separatists--strived Sunday to fire the emotions of voters in the French-speaking province.
A confident-appearing Chretien spoke to thousands of supporters in Hull, a Quebec city just across the river from the federal capital of Ottawa in Ontario. "It is possible to be a very proud Quebecker and at the same time an extremely proud Canadian," and voters will prove that by rejecting separation, he said.
It is only in the last few days that the unity campaign has begun to evoke the same kind of passionate displays for Canada that Bouchard has for weeks been generating on behalf of Quebec independence.
Bouchard spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at a rally in Beauport, a suburb of the provincial capital, Quebec City. He urged voters to show "trust and confidence in the Quebec people" by launching Quebec on the voyage to nationhood.
Both speeches were telecast live on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s all-news cable channel.
The province's 5 million voters are faced with a measure that empowers the separatist government to declare Quebec "sovereign"--a term generally understood here to mean independent--at an unspecified future date after first trying to negotiate a new economic and trade partnership with what would be left of Canada.
The actual wording of the question on the referendum is: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
The last public polls show those favoring separation with a three- to six-point lead, with enough undecided voters to swing the outcome in either direction. The polls, however, were completed before a rally by tens of thousands of unity supporters here Friday. Canadian federalists contend that the event turned their campaign around.
A separatist victory would throw the country into crisis. Federal Cabinet members say contingency plans have been prepared but acknowledge there is no precedent.
The Canadian dollar, which has lost nearly two cents in value against U.S. currency this month, could be expected to plunge further as foreign investors, who hold about 40% of the national debt, sold Canadian securities.
Preston Manning, parliamentary leader of the Western-based Reform Party, contends that a referendum loss would be such a fundamental failure that Chretien would have to put his leadership to the test of a general election.
Chretien has said a close victory for the separatists would not be grounds for breaking up the country because the referendum is ambiguously worded.