MONTREAL — Quebec voters rejected a proposal to secede from Canada by the narrowest of margins Monday, barely averting an unprecedented constitutional crisis for America's northern neighbor and largest trading partner.
The ballot measure--which was opposed by 50.6% of voters and supported by 49.4%--would have empowered the Quebec government to declare the French-speaking province of 7.3 million people independent of Canada at an unspecified future date after first trying to broker a new economic and political partnership with what would have been left of Canada.
But while Canada will remain intact, at least for the time being, the vote exposed wide divisions within Quebec and prompted separatist leaders to predict another bid for independence in the near future. That leaves the prospect of political instability hovering over Canada.
The margin of victory for federalist forces was only 53,498 votes out of 4,669,554 cast; 93.5% of eligible voters cast ballots.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who led the campaign for Canadian national unity, addressed the nation from his office in Ottawa, the federal capital, and called on Canadians and Quebeckers to unite and respect each other. He urged Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau to work with other officials for a better Canada.
"The time has come for reconciliation. The time has come to put aside that which divides us. . . . The time has come to turn a page," he said.
In contrast to Chretien's tone, Parizeau delivered an angry speech to supporters that conjured images of narrow-minded French Canadian nationalism. He blamed the defeat on "money and the ethnic vote," a reference to recent immigrants and other minorities who solidly oppose separation, and noted that nearly 60% of French-speakers voted in favor of separation. "We will reap our revenge," he warned.
Opposition party leader Lucien Bouchard was more conciliatory, but he hinted at another referendum on the near horizon.
"Let's keep the faith. Let's keep hoping because the next time will be the right time--and the next time could come more quickly than we believe," he told the crowd.
Late Monday, a crowd of about a thousand disappointed separatists marched through the streets of Montreal, breaking store windows and threatening to upset the victory party of the federalists. Riot police were summoned to keep apart the two sides, whose numbers swelled late Monday night. There were reports that fires had been set, and police made several arrests.
The separatists came much closer to victory than most expected when the campaign began. As recently as a month ago, the conventional wisdom was that the ballot measure would be rejected by a margin of 10% or more.
The fact that the results were so close will be seen by many as a repudiation of Chretien's leadership by his home province and a failure of his political skills.
Quebec's argument over secession springs from conflicting views about how to best preserve the province's French language and unique culture amid English-speaking surroundings.
Separatists argue that nationhood is the only way Quebeckers can ensure their own destiny. Canadian federalists say the advances of French in the last 30 to 40 years--it is the dominant language in all aspects of Quebec life--show what can be achieved within Canada, avoiding the economic risks and other uncertainties of independence.
After the defeat of Quebec's first referendum on independence in 1980 by a margin of 60% to 40%, the separatists went into retreat. But they were revived in the early 1990s with the rejection by the rest of Canada of efforts to enshrine protections for Quebec in the country's constitution.
Last year, Parizeau's separatist Parti Quebecois won a three-party race to govern the province with a plurality of 44.7%. Parizeau ran on a pledge to place the issue of independence before voters.
But while Parizeau is the official leader of the separatist campaign, it was Bouchard who emerged as its hero.
The 56-year-old lawyer from Lac-Saint-Jean, who came to electoral politics less than a decade ago, already was the most popular and trusted politician in Quebec in December when an attack by a muscle-destroying bacteria forced the amputation of his left leg and nearly killed him. His recovery--described by his doctors as nearly miraculous--elevated Bouchard's standing even further in Quebec.
On Oct. 7, with the separatists dropping fast in the polls and little passion or commitment evident among partisans of independence, Parizeau turned leadership of the campaign over to Bouchard.
His passionate oratory and the crowds chanting "Lucien, Lucien, Lucien" shifted the focus of the campaign away from economics onto notions of change and French-Canadian pride and nationalism. That played to the separatists' strengths and undercut the federalists.
"Lucien Bouchard has seemed to revive messianic separatism," Canadian historian Michael Bliss said in a televised review of the campaign Monday.