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Canada to Quebec: Please Don't Go

A 'yes' to separation would destroy nation, prime minister warns

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 1995


AS Canada sits on the brink of losing Quebec, Prime Minister Jean Chretien has broken his silence to issue an impassioned plea for unity.

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Quebec voters will decide Monday whether to vote 'yes' to form a new nation, or 'no' to remain under the maple leaf flag fluttering in Ottawa.

Speaking Tuesday to a crowd of 6,000 'no' supporters at a televised rally in Montreal, Mr. Chretien appealed to Quebeckers not to ''destroy'' Canada. Instead, he said, if they are unhappy with the federal system they should help Canada change and grow.

Chretien, for a long time convinced that Quebeckers would vote to stay with Canada, was finally driven this week to step into the fray. What moved him, analysts say, were opinion polls that showed the separatist cause surging in Quebec. One released yesterday showed the ballot question too close to call.

The poll showed federalist forces with 51 percent support, separatists with 49 percent.

''We will have to decide whether the Canada we Quebeckers have built together will continue to evolve or will be broken apart,'' Chretien told the crowd and television viewers across Quebec. ''We will have to chose between hope and abandonment, between moving forward and moving out.''

But are Quebeckers listening? And if so, do they believe the prime minister of Canada really means it when he suggests the possibility of constitutional changes to satisfy Quebec's desire to run its own affairs?

Perhaps. Canada has tried constitutional remedies three times during the 1980s, so Quebeckers are skeptical. Chretien also knows his credibility in Quebec is poor. Although popular across Canada, he is ironically one of the least-liked politicians in his home province.

''Even when Mr. Chretien promises, he does not deliver,'' scorned Lucien Bouchard at a Montreal rally Wednesday night. The separatist firebrand, who in only two weeks has singlehandedly re-ignited Quebec 'yes' campaign, followed up: ''Imagine what happens when he doesn't promise!''

Bouchard kindles flame

Mr. Bouchard, who leads the 53 separatist members of the Bloc Quebec in parliament, is the reason the separatists have a clear shot at winning Monday. Coupling charisma with fiery oratory, he has been able to revive the separatist cause that lagged behind by almost 10 percentage points a month ago.

Polls showing an unexpectedly strong showing for the 'yes' may actually help the no's squeak out a narrow victory in a phenomenon known as the ''ballot-box bonus.'' Pollsters say 3 out of 4 undecided voters will vote no - if they show up to vote. The likelihood of more 'no' voters showing up increases the stronger the 'yes' side looks in the polls.

The problem, of course, is that even a narrow victory for separatists would keep their dream alive. A moral victory would be declared since separatists could accurately claim that well over half of all French-speaking Quebeckers had voted yes.

Only a come-from-behind, dramatic, decisive 'no' victory would settle the question. Or perhaps a big 'yes' victory.

Bouchard's message of Quebec pride - and humiliation - by ''English Canada'' has resonated in Quebec. He has challenged Quebeckers not to be ''humiliated'' by ''saying no to ourselves'' at the ballot box.