AS Canada sits on the brink of losing Quebec, Prime Minister Jean Chretien has broken his silence to issue an impassioned plea for unity.
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.
''He is playing with the pride of Quebeckers because they are proud of who they are,'' says Claude Gauthier, chief of research for CROP, a Montreal polling firm. ''Humiliation and pride - these have worked for Mr. Bouchard in the past to help him win an election. It may work this time, too.''
Reaction outside Quebec has been stunned disbelief as Chretien has stepped into the final days of battle. Many seem shocked, realizing Chretien probably would not have done so if the situation was not dire.
Nearly 2,000 people rallied Tuesday in Nathan Philips Square in downtown Toronto to deliver a message to Quebeckers: ''We want you to stay.'' Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall suggested that people phone and fax friends in Quebec imploring them to remain a part of Canada.
One Toronto trucker planned to drive a load of 70 huge signs carrying messages from Canadians imploring Quebeckers to vote to stay in Canada. Meanwhile, air fares were slashed as federalist politicians called for as many as possible to converge on Montreal from around the country for a noon rally today to show Quebeckers they are appreciated.
''I'm getting worried,'' says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political consultant. ''You always say this can't happen here. This is not Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. This is North America, and we're sufficiently money-oriented that we wouldn't do this to ourselves.''
Now it's serious
In western Canada, where sentiment has been long characterized as ''if they want to go - let 'em,'' a different mood was reported this week.
''People are astonished,'' says Gordon Gibson, Vancouver author of a book called ''Plan B,'' a scenario in which Quebec separates from Canada. ''They had been told there was no problem. Now it's really starting to sink in here that the country could break. There's a tremendous amount of emotion.''
Westerners, he says, could support Chretien in some renewed effort to accommodate Quebec's desire to be recognized in the Constitution as a distinct society and to be given more control over its own affairs.
But Chretien's pitch telling Quebeckers that ''anything'' including constitutional renewal ''is possible'' may be too little too late, writes Lysianne Gagnon, a Montreal columnist who says Chretien's message isn't sinking in. Others worry that she may be right.
Canadians also realize there is trouble afoot when the United States president breaks the traditional US stance of neutrality on the Quebec issue.
''Canada has been a great model for the rest of the world and a great partner for the United States, and I hope that can continue,'' President Clinton said Wednesday, adding that the US wants to see ''a strong and united Canada.''
So serious is the present situation that Chretien invoked a little- used law that required TV networks to give him air time .
''In a few days the shouting will be over, and you will be alone to make your decision,'' he said. ''I urge you my fellow Quebeckers to listen to your heart - and your head.''
And he asked, almost pleading: ''Do you really think it makes any sense, any sense at all, to break up Canada?''
In seconds, the cameras had switched to Mr. Bouchard, who was given equal time to respond. Looking out at the same audience, his speech soon filled in the blank, giving the prime minister his answer: ''Yes!''