With one week remaining before voters in the French-speaking province of Quebec vote on whether to set themselves on the path to independence, Canadians are awakening to the possibility that their country is on the brink of fracture.
The separatist campaign has closed a 10-point deficit in the polls, pulling into a virtual tie in surveys released over the weekend. The separatists' growing strength was apparent at a rally in this provincial capital Sunday that drew more than 4,000 people, the largest crowd of the campaign so far.
The upturn in separatist fortunes was also reflected Monday in financial markets. The Canadian dollar took a hard drop for the second straight trading day as fearful investors fled Canadian currency. When the markets closed in Toronto, the Canadian dollar was valued at 72.99 U.S. cents, down more than 1 1/2 cents since Friday morning.
Backers of Canadian unity pointed to the plunge to support one of their main campaign themes: that a separatist win would be economic bad news both for Quebec and the rest of Canada. But the federalists have found themselves on the defensive for much of the week as they lost ground in the polls.
Quebec Liberal Party leader Daniel Johnson, the flag-bearer for unity forces in the province, declared in a speech Monday that "the hour is grave" and the referendum carries "eternal consequences."
Despite the adverse polls, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who is calling the shots in the anti-separatist campaign, remains a figure of unflappable confidence. Toronto's Globe and Mail reported Monday that Chretien rejected advice to change campaign tactics, instead sticking to a message that extols Canada while emphasizing the economic risks of independence.
Quebec's separatist government is asking voters to endorse a two-pronged ballot measure Monday.
The proposal calls for the province to declare its "sovereignty"--the term used here instead of independence--at an unspecified date. But it also requires the Quebec government to try to negotiate a new political and economic partnership with what would remain of Canada. The partnership offer is intended to cushion against the potential economic hardships of separation by maintaining trade relationships, a currency union and other financial links with Canada.
A separatist victory would contradict the conventional wisdom in Canada, which is that Quebeckers like to flirt with independence but shy away from a full commitment. A similar referendum in 1980 was defeated 60% to 40%.
Mindful of that, most Canadians outside Quebec have been blase about the campaign. In the last week, however, with polls showing the race tightening, Canada has begun to snap to attention.
More than 70 city councils across British Columbia have passed resolutions urging Quebeckers to reject separation. Schoolchildren in the prairie province of Saskatchewan have been telephoning Quebec families with a message of unity. A farmer in Alberta plowed his field with the phrase "It's better together" in French in letters large enough to be read from a passing airliner.
The separatist comeback is largely attributed to one man: Lucien Bouchard, the charismatic leader of the separatist opposition party in the Canadian Parliament. On Oct. 7, with the separatists falling in the polls and drawing small and desultory crowds, Bouchard displaced Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, an aloof, professorial economist, as principal campaigner.
The polls immediately went into reverse. The most recent surveys show a slight lead for the separatist cause among decided voters.
Bouchard is a fiery orator who has long been Quebec's most popular politician. His recovery last December from an attack by a muscle-destroying disease that forced the amputation of one leg further elevated him to near-hero status.
* ECONOMIC IMPACT: Quebec "sovereignty" might be trouble for Canada, U.S. D1