Early returns in a Quebec referendum that could thrust Canada into an unprecedented constitutional crisis showed voters nearly dead even on a proposal to make the French-speaking province independent.
With 90% of the 22,400 polling stations reporting, the federalists held a lead of 50.2% to 49.8% over the separatists.
Results from Montreal, considered a stronghold for the anti-separatist side, were slow to come in. Turnout throughout the province was reported to be very high.
The proposal would empower Quebec's government to declare the French-speaking province of 7.3 million people independent from Canada, but only after trying to negotiate a new political and economic partnership with what would be left of Canada.
The separatists were led in the campaign by Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau and by Lucien Bouchard, head of the opposition party in the federal Parliament. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien led the pro-unity campaign.
An affirmative vote would take Canada into unknown political territory. It also could lead to a punishing drop in the value of the Canadian dollar, driving up interest rates and pushing Canada into a recession.
Because of the United States' strong economic links with its northern neighbor, America has a considerable stake in the outcome. Total trade in merchandise and services between the two countries totals about $1 billion a day, the largest such two-way relationship in the world.
Here in Quebec's largest city, with temperatures in the 30s and occasional snow flurries, people waited as long as two hours to mark their ballots.
Quebec's argument over secession springs from conflicting views about how to best preserve the province's French language and unique culture amid English-speaking surroundings.
Separatists argue that nationhood is the only way Quebeckers can assure their own destiny. Canadian federalists say the advances of French in the last 30 to 40 years--it is the dominant language in all aspects of Quebec life--show what can be achieved within Canada, avoiding the economic risks and other uncertainties of independence.
After the defeat of Quebec's first referendum on independence in 1980 by a margin of 60% to 40%, the separatists went into retreat. But they were revived in the early 1990s with the rejection by the rest of Canada of efforts to enshrine protections for Quebec in the country's constitution.
Last year, Parizeau's separatist Parti Quebecois won a three-party race to govern the province with a plurality of 44.7%. Parizeau ran on a pledge to place the issue of independence before voters.
But while Parizeau is the official leader of the separatist campaign, it was Lucien Bouchard who emerged as its hero.
The 56-year-old lawyer from Lac-Saint-Jean, who came to electoral politics less than a decade ago, already was the most popular and trusted politician in Quebec in December when an attack by a muscle-destroying bacteria forced the amputation of his left leg and nearly killed him. His recovery--described by his doctors as nearly miraculous--elevated Bouchard's standing even further in Quebec.
On Oct. 7, with the separatists dropping fast in the polls and little passion or commitment evident among partisans of independence, Parizeau turned leadership of the campaign over to Bouchard.
His passionate oratory and the crowds chanting "Lucien, Lucien, Lucien" shifted the focus of the campaign away from economics onto notions of change and French-Canadian pride and nationalism. That played to the separatists' strengths and undercut the federalists.
"Lucien Bouchard has seemed to revive messianic separatism," Canadian historian Michael Bliss said in a televised review of the campaign Monday.
The separatists pulled back even and then slightly ahead in the polls. Canadians outside of Quebec who had taken a federalist victory for granted suddenly found themselves facing the prospect of a splintered nation.
Last Friday, tens of thousands of them journeyed to Montreal for one of the largest political rallies in Canadian history, urging Quebec to defeat the referendum. For federalists, it was a reviving moment and an indication that Canadian patriotism could match Bouchard's emotional appeals to Quebec pride.
On Monday, the rest of the country remained in impotent suspense while the one-quarter of Canada's population that lives in Quebec voted on the fate of the entire nation.
It was cold across most of Canada, and several places recorded the first snowfall of the season. Martha Waldon, a high school guidance counselor in Quesnel, British Columbia, described in a telephone interview a feeling of "quiet resignation" among her students.
Winnipeg lawyer Paul Edwards, leader of the Liberal Party in Manitoba, said there was "an enormous sense of foreboding. . . . People feel so helpless."
In Toronto, subway stations usually crackling with energy seemed subdued and quiet.
In Ottawa, the Canadian capital, Bouchard's opposition party staged a one-day boycott of Parliament. Instead of the usual debate, the House of Commons heard a series of testaments to Canada from members of the ruling Liberals and from the conservative Reform Party.
Then, a Liberal Party backbencher named Pierrette Ringuette-Maltaif, a French-speaker from New Brunswick, stood and began singing "O Canada," the national anthem. The entire house joined her, in an a cappella mixture of French and English.
Andrew Van Velzen of The Times' Toronto Bureau contributed to this report.