With his nation on the brink of splitting, Prime Minister Jean Chretien pleaded Tuesday with his fellow Quebeckers to thwart the separatists who now predict victory in next week's independence referendum.
Trying to recoup from a disastrous week in which the separatists surged into the lead, Chretien drew the biggest federalist crowd of the campaign--at least 8,000 people--to a sports arena in suburban Montreal.
"The future of this country will be played out within one week," Chretien said, referring to Monday's referendum. "Canada is at stake. . . . It is a country worth fighting for."
The speech, to an impassioned crowd of people chanting non , non to separatism as they waved Canadian and Quebec flags, was one of the most important of Chretien's career.
Making clear his sense of urgency, he also booked television time this evening for an address to the nation. It is the first time he has ever made use of a federal act allowing such an address if it is deemed crucially important to Canadians.
Infighting has racked the federalist side for several days as its leaders argue over whether to make a last-minute offer to Quebec of constitutional reform.
"The wheels have come off the [federalist] campaign," said Pierre Paradis, the No. 2 federalist leader in the mostly French-speaking province. He said the separatists would win Monday unless Chretien and premiers of the nine English-speaking provinces made a dramatic offer to Quebec of some special constitutional status.
Financial traders, alarmed by polls showing the separatists ahead, sent the Canadian dollar and the Toronto Stock Market sharply downward Monday. The stock market suffered its sixth-biggest one-day loss ever before stabilizing Tuesday.
Seeking to shore up the battered dollar, the Bank of Canada raised its bank rate Tuesday to 7.65% from 6.67%. It was the largest jump in three years and raised expectations that major commercial banks would follow with an increase in the prime rate, currently 8%.
Individual Quebeckers also showed signs of nervousness. Banks in Cornwall, Ontario, and Plattsburgh, N.Y., both close to the Quebec border, reported a significant increase in Quebeckers asking about opening accounts.
In Montreal, hundreds of people have swamped passport offices to obtain Canadian passports before the referendum. Federalists warn that Quebeckers could lose their passports if Quebec--home to a quarter of Canada's population--secedes.