By the smallest of margins, Canada avoided divorce from French-speaking Quebec on Monday night. But the near-deadlock in the breakaway referendum means the marriage will only get rockier, analysts predicted.
An astounding 92 percent of the province’s 5 million voters went to the polls.
Referendum backers said the issue was likely to be back on the ballot in a few years.
“It didn’t work this time, but not by a great deal,” said Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, a separatist leader. “We fought a good battle. We only failed by a tiny margin. Well, what do you do? You roll up your sleeves and you begin all over again. … We will end up with our country.”
For now, separatists say they will concentrate on negotiating with the Canadian government toward more rights for French-speaking Quebecers. Some who opposed the referendum seemed open to such discussions, to head off another attempt at secession.
“The decision will be accepted by all Quebec men and women with serenity and dignity,” said Daniel Johnson, a leader of the “no” movement. “We will have to be sensitive to their choice and respect it as well.”
But most were not ready to abandon hope for a new Quebec.
“The feeling is still deep in the heart of Quebec men and women,” said Lucien Bouchard, the fiery separatist who lifted the independence campaign to near victory. “The ‘yes’ side has never been as strong. … Let’s keep the faith. Let’s keep hoping, because the next time will be the right one. Next time could come more quickly than we believe.”
For now, opponents say common sense prevailed. A victory for separatists would have cost Canada one-fourth of its people and one-sixth of its land. But Quebec would have lost far more economically than it would have gained in spirit and soul in its new deal, federalists argued.
But if minds won out over hearts, it was only by a few thousand votes. There were nearly as many Quebecers crying as celebrating.
“Never has the ‘yes’ been so close to victory as it was today. To see it escape our grasp is hard to bear,” Bouchard said. “But … we have to recognize democracy has spoken.”
At a downtown Montreal arena, referendum backers broke into tears as they watched the “no” side’s razor-thin victory at rallies throughout the province.
Nearby, in a crowded night club, thousands of happy Canadians waved the red Canadian maple leaf flag and hugged in celebration. News reports from around the country showed Canadians reacting with glee.
The only thing that seemed to matter to cheering referendum opponents was that Quebec would not separate from Canada. There was little recognition of lingering bitterness.
Police stepped up patrols in Montreal, Hull and Quebec City late Monday and braced for what could be a violent backlash to the vote. But at midnight, the province remained calm.
The referendum threatened to tear apart the Canadian union, create economic upheaval and change the way Canadians live, analysts said.
The outcome seemed to turn on 700,000 undecided voters, who apparently came out decidely on the “no” side. A last-minute push by Canadian nationalists warned that a separatist victory cost Quebecers their livelihoods and security.
The turnout was steady and heavy throughout the day in most of the province. Canadian law prohibits campaigning near polling places, and the day was marked by few shows of partisanship.
Lines were long as Quebecers voted in churches, schools and social halls.
“All people are doing is voting, voting and voting,” said Michelle Yelle, who owns a condo in Margate. She was busy getting out “no” voters in suburban Montreal at midday. “After all the noise, I’m happy this day is finally here.”
Polling stations were manned by workers from each side. With only one ballot to mark, voters in many instances took less than a minute to make their choices.
“It’s a very civil process,” said Alex Legenre, a “no” observer working in a polling place in a predominantly pro-separatist area of Montreal. “People are being very polite to each other even if they are not on the same side.”
Hordes of media followed the leaders of both campaigns as they cast their ballots.
“I’m very happy,” Parizeau said, after casting his vote outside Montreal. “At least we’ve come to the moment of decision.”
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who led the opposition, said after voting: “It’s a very nice day, and I’m in a good mood.”
As for today, Canada will awake to post referendum depression, some political analysts say.
“This has been a very divisive thing for Canada,” said Legenre, 25, a Montreal attorney. “It has stirred very bad blood. It will take a long time for this country to heal from this.”
Graphic: Quebec votes on independence