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Canada stays united but ...

Quebec vote is 'a wake up call'

October 31, 1995
Web posted at: 9:50 a.m. EST (1450 GMT)

'non' voters

MONTREAL, Quebec (CNN) -- Quebec separatists who wanted their Canadian province to become an independent country almost pulled it off, an indication to both separatists and federalists that a future split is still possible. "All Canadians should see this as a wake-up call," said New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna. And supporters of an independent Quebec vowed to continue their fight. (740K QuickTime movie) By daylight Tuesday, Montreal police reported calm after overnight clashes, looting and arson that followed announcement of the final vote tally -- 50.6 percent "no" and 49.4 percent "yes."

voters clash

About 50 people were arrested and at least two police officers were injured, a Montreal police spokesman said. In the western Montreal suburb of Vaudreuil, the offices of opposition leader Daniel Johnson, who led the "no" campaign, went up in flames and a local official said arson was suspected.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who campaigned for Canadian unity, called an emergency meeting of his cabinet Tuesday and was expected to consider plans for constitutional reform. "I understand your deep desire for change," Chretien told Quebeckers Monday in a televised address from his office. "We must now seek innovative solutions." Quebec is populated mainly by French-speakers who have long complained their interests were sidelined by a central government dominated, like the rest of Canada, by English speakers. More than 60 percent of French-speaking Quebeckers said "yes" to independence but voters in English-speaking communities bordering the neighboring province of Ontario and in western Montreal voted "no." President Clinton phoned Chretien to express his support for Canadian unity, the White House said.

Jean Chretien

"I understand your deep desire for change. We must now seek innovative solutions."

-- Jean Chretien, prime minister of Canada

The French government, officially neutral before Monday's referendum, pledged Tuesday to strengthen ties with mostly French-speaking Quebec. "(France) plans quite naturally to confirm and develop the direct and preferential relations which link it to Quebec, an essential partner in the francophone world," a French Foreign Ministry statement said. Polls indicated most French voters favored independence for Quebec.

Voter turnout was 92 percent. Out of 4.67 million votes cast, the two sides were separated by about 50,000. The closeness of the vote gives the separatists a moral victory in Canada's only province with a French-speaking majority. And it increases the likelihood that deep divisions will plague the province and its relationship with the Canadian government in Ottawa.

In his televised address, Chretien told Canadians "the time has come for reconciliation," and urged both sides to come together in a spirit of cooperation.

The message was meant as much for federalists as for separatists. In 1980, federalists won a vote on Quebec's independence by a 60-to-40 split. Monday's vote was far closer, and most analysts believe Chretien will have to make major concessions to the Quebeckers to preserve the union.

Lucien Bouchard

"Let's keep the faith. Because the next time will be the right time. And the next time could come quicker than you think."

-- Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois Party

Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau and separatist leader Lucien Bouchard praised the efforts of supporters of Quebec's sovereignty, and both pledged to continue.

"Let's keep the faith," Bouchard said. "Because the next time will be the right time. And the next time could come quicker than you think."

Jacques Parizeau

"We want our country and we will have it," Parizeau said.

The separatist side held the lead for an hour and a half after polls closed, but just after 9:30 p.m., the federalists slipped ahead for good. The contrast between the crowds at the two headquarters could not have been more stark: as each hundredth of a percentage point was added to the "no" side, the federalists erupted in shouts and cheers while the separatists grew more quiet and grim.

Quebeckers first elected a separatist government in 1976, and since that time the province's French-speaking majority has battled with the English-speaking majority of the rest of Canada over Quebec's position in the country. Early in the 1995 campaign, the federalist side appeared to be well on its way to a second victory. But as Monday's vote drew closer, polls showed the issue in a dead heat, with the separatists drawing ahead.

But a final and very visible push for a "no" vote by Chretien brought the vote down to the wire. In the end, record numbers of voters streamed to the polls to cast their vote on an issue -- separatism or unity -- that has been decided more often by war than by ballots in the world's history.

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