FREDERICTON, CANADA — THE relief was palpable in New Brunswick after neighboring Quebeckers turned down a sovereignty bid by a razor-thin margin.
"The agony of the referendum experience is over," New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna told reporters early yesterday morning after the votes were counted. Canada has "been given a second chance for life."
For New Brunswickers, an independent Quebec would have physically cut off their own province, along with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island, from the rest of the nation. It also would have reduced federal aid, which now accounts for 40 percent of funding for social programs in Atlantic Canada.
"I had constituents coming to me with tears in their eyes, afraid that they would lose their pensions," said the province's finance minister, Edmond Blanchard, in an interview after the vote. "Others ... didn't want to see their province cut off."
For many here, the Quebec vote also invoked a sense of emotion and even betrayal. Many interviewed compared it to a divorce: Even if the parties reconcile, the experience can leave a mark.
"The vote was scary for a lot of people," says former textile worker Frank Vail, who lives on a family farm about 40 miles from the Maine border. "Quebeckers have been unhappy for a long time, and it can't go on like that."
Nearly 34 percent of New Brunswickers are French-speaking, and New Brunswick is Canada's only officially bilingual province. While Canada mandates bilingual federal services, New Brunswick extends the principle to provincial services too.
Here every document and speech in the legislature is translated in both languages. Even graffiti painted on rocks along the highway is often bilingual.
"One of the strong points of the Canadian nation has been its ability to compromise. But I'm not sure that will continue," says Conde Grondin, professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. "The relations between French Canada and English Canada will be very changed. I expect that people will be less willing to cooperate with Quebec."
For construction worker Michael Gauthier, anger over the vote could undermine support for bilingual policies here. "I expect a backlash," he says, carrying a sign marked "slow" and "lentement" at a construction site south of Fredericton. "In seven years, lentement may well be gone from this sign."
"We're going to separate, it's inevitable," says a logger, who requested anonymity. "We're the only bilingual province in Canada. In Quebec you can put up a Chinese sign, but not an English one. [Quebeckers] don't know how good they have it. It's been going on for years."
'Please don't turn your backs'
On the eve of the vote, some 4,800 New Brunswickers rallied in Montreal last Friday to urge Quebec neighbors to vote "no." Many were French speakers, says Finance Minister Blanchard, who is 1 of 9 Francophone ministers serving in the current Liberal government.
"The rally sent a message to Quebec from 1 million Francophone speakers outside of Quebec: Please don't turn your backs on us," he said.
Quebec's political clout has secured funding for many Francophone programs and institutions all over Canada. Many here feared that their Francophone voice would be lost if Quebec left the nation.
"A 'no' vote means we must quickly find a solution to the problem of Quebec," says Michael Doucet, dean of the Moncton University Law School and past president of the Society of Acadians, a group for Francophones in New Brunswick.
"We got a big wake-up call tonight," said Premier McKenna after the vote. "Canada won. But it's a Pyrrhic victory if we don't deal with the underlying causes of discontent."
"I am ready to support calls for a 'distinct society' and a right to veto for Quebec.," he added.
"In the last few days, there has been an outpouring of affection for Quebec, but I think it's affection for Canada as a whole," says actor Ron Tough, speaking in a Fredericton cafe on the eve of the vote. "Quebec is as 'distinct' a society as you can get. How many times do you have to say you are distinct?"