In dramatic back-to-back appeals on nationwide television, Canada’s prime minister and the leader of Quebec’s separatists tried Wednesday to woo undecided voters who hold the key to next week’s independence referendum.
“Our country is facing a crisis,” Prime Minister Jean Chretien told fellow Quebeckers. “Are you really ready to tell the whole world that people of different languages, different backgrounds, different cultures cannot live together? Have you found one good reason to destroy Canada?”
It was the first time Chretien had made use of a federal law allowing the prime minister to claim nationwide TV time to address Canadians on a matter deemed urgent. He acted after a string of polls showed the separatists had moved into a narrow lead, making Monday’s referendum too close to call.
Chretien requested that equal air time be given to Lucien Bouchard, the parliamentary opposition leader whose charismatic campaigning has been credited with the recent separatist surge.
Bouchard acknowledged that many Canadians will be upset if Quebeckers choose independence but asked that the choice be respected.
“Quebeckers will make a decision that they will have carefully reflected upon,” he said. “If they vote ‘yes,’ they will have decided Quebec should become a sovereign country.”
Bouchard urged Canadian leaders, in the event of a “yes” victory, to show good faith in negotiating a new economic and political partnership with an independent Quebec. The separatists are willing to delay an independence declaration for up to one year to arrange such a deal.
Both Chretien and Bouchard taped their appeals in advance with versions in English and French. More than 80 percent of Quebec’s 7.3 million people are Francophones.
“The future of our whole country is in your hands,” Chretien told Quebeckers. “The end of Canada will be nothing less than the end of a dream, the end of a country that has made us the envy of the world.”
Earlier Wednesday, in a direct challenge to the separatists, the Cree Indians who claim the northern half of the province announced they had voted overwhelmingly to remain part of Canada if Quebec secedes.
“The message is clear - we won’t go,” said Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the 12,000 Crees. He released results of Tuesday’s referendum that showed 96 percent of voters opting for Canada.
The Crees reported a 77 percent turnout of eligible voters across their vast, sparsely populated land, with 4,849 rejecting Quebec secession and 183 voting for it.
“We have spoken as unanimously as a people possibly can,” Coon Come said. “We will not be separated from Canada because we have withheld our consent.”
A top leader of the separatist campaign, Mario Dumont, said an independent Quebec would never yield the Cree territory.
“The territory of Quebec is not divisible,” Dumont said. “The Crees may keep in touch in different ways with Canada, but they will have to deal first and foremost with Quebec if there is a ‘yes’ vote.”’
Coon Come, at the Cree news conference, said his people would seek public support for their cause outside Quebec and insist on retaining control over natural resources, including major hydroelectric projects, in their territory.