Ottawa — Near the town of Wakefield, in western Quebec, a cottage owner peers out at a tree blossoming in white splendor against a backdrop of evergreens on a distant ridge.
"Yes, it's an apple," he tells a female dinner guest.
"Beautiful," she says. "But I thought it was turning white from fear of the referendum."
Whatever the topic, conversations in Quebec today always come back to the referendum.
On May 20, 6 million provincial residents will have the opportunity to cast ballot on the age-old issue of Quebec's destiny, answering a question that could catapult the restive, French-speaking province toward independence and thereby ensure the breakup of Canada.
With the long-awaited plebiscite drawing near, the prereferendum campaign dominates life in the province more than any political contest in recent memory.
Families, old friends, neighbors are divided along partisan lines. As a Quebecker, you are either a "oui" or a "non," the French words for yes and no Quebeckers use even when speaking in English to differentiate the two sides on the referendum question.
"Are you a 'oui,'" Christine?" the cottage owner asked his dinner guest the other night.
"Yes," she said. "I changed my mind a few weeks ago."
He thinks a moment. "I thought you'd be a 'oui.'"
The only exceptions are the undecided and those who are afraid to admit where they stand. Apparently more people are joining the latter group as the pre-vote debate becomes increasingly belligerent. The close, emotion-charged pre-referendum campaign has been marred by fistfights, vandalism, and exchanges of venomous accusations among the political leaders. In Quebec and throughout Canada, frustration and a sense of foreboding have grown as the debate has turned more and more bitter.
Not only do Canadians have little idea who will win the May 20 vote, but also there is no assurance that its outcome will settle anything in the longstanding feud between the French-speaking minority and English-speaking majority in this country of 23 million.
Quebec Premier Rene Levesque's pro-independence movement may fare much better on May 20 than many had expected only a few months ago. Moreover, the complex -- some say underhanded -- nature of the referendum question itself raises profound uncertainties about how the vote will be interpreted.
Fueled by Quebec nationalists who believe the French minority has been held back culturally and economically in Canada's federal system, separatism in the province has been gathering force for two decades.
But, sensing that Quebeckers are in no mood for outright independence, Premier Levesque is asking for a limited mandate in the plebiscite.
Quebec residents will be asked only to vote "yes" or "no" on Mr. Levesque's proposal to begin negotiations with Canada's other government leaders on how Quebec might achieve "sovereignty-association." This term, coined by Mr. Levesque, calls for the province to become a sovereign state in a common-market relationship with the rest of Canada.
In this way, Quebeckers could become masters of their French "homeland" without losing the Canadian currency and the advantage of trading with Canada's other nine provinces, Mr. Levesque's Parti Quebecois supporters argue.
Ranged against Mr. Levesque are the "federalists" who want to keep Canada together. They are led by Claude Ryan, provincial Liberty Party leader, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
They contend that Quebeckers would suffer economically outside of Canada. They also insist that the country's federal system of government can be altered to accommodate the changes needed to satisfy Quebeckers' demands for increased provincial autonomy.
While Mr. Levesque depicts a "yes" majority on May 20 as little more than a signal to the rest of Canada that Quebec wants change, the federalists say such a result will lead inevitably to provincial separation.
Opinion polls taken in April showed the two sides neck-and-neck. However, there are now signs of a swing to the federalist side. There is an arithmetical advantage here in that most of the 20 percent of the population who are not French speakers can be counted on to vote "no." This means the "yes" side has to muster more than 50 percent of the French vote to win a majority.
"People are listening carefully to the arguments," says Quebec dairy farmer Gilles Bertrand, "but in my area the 'yes' side is running out of steam."
He claims that the undecideds, which have run as high as 20 percent of those surveyed in recent opinion polls, are often "no" voters who prefer to keep quiet because the "yes" side is so "aggressive."
No one knows what Rene Levesque's next move would be if he squeaks through with a slim majority. Some, such as Montrealer Mark Rawlings, say it would bring "continuing political turmoil."
The independence movement in Quebec has long been accompanied by violence, most notably by the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ), which kidnapped and murdered a provincial minister in 1970. With communities in the province now bitterly split over the referendum, there are fears that a loss by the pro-independence side in the vote could prompt renewed violence.
"There are a lot of kooks around here," remarked one west Quebecker. "I'm afraid I'll find my barn burned down some morning."
Without a clear "yes" or "no" mandate, the meaning of the vote will be disputed, both because of the nature of the question asked and because of the arithmetical disadvantage faced by the Parti Quebecois.
The scenario is further complicated by statements by Prime Minister Trudeau and the provincial premiers ruling out any negotiations with Mr. Levesque on Quebec sovereignty should he win the referendum. This raises the possibility that the Quebec government, having been rebuffed, would declare unilateral independence.
The unavoidable conclusion seems to be that anything less than a decisive "no" vote on May 20 will open the way for an explosive confrontation between Quebec and the rest of Canada whose results will be wholly unpredictable.