Quebec at the edge of the abyss Sovereignty referendum: The breakup of Canada is suddenly thinkable.

October 25, 1995

Quebec voters will decide on Monday whether Canada will go forward in unity or face the prospect of breaking into two countries. Canadians outside Quebec do not get to vote on Quebec sovereignty, and have only lately realized the referendum's profound effect on them.

If the vote is no, Canada will remain intact, with a constitution that Quebec considers imperfect, but still a country that most people in all provinces consider one of the most blessed.

But if the vote is yes -- that Quebec should offer a new partnership to the rest of Canada and upon rejection declare its sovereignty -- the only assured result would be prolonged and anguished confusion. The Quebec assembly would propose a constitutional change as an ultimatum. Upon rejection, its assembly might or might not declare sovereignty, which might or might not be accepted by the rest of Canada.

What looks like a prelude to financial panic began nationwide this week because the possibility of a yes vote has undermined confidence in the Canadian dollar, stocks and bonds.

Federal Canada minus Quebec would be terribly confused. The position of the prime minister, governor general and other national leaders from Quebec would be unclear. That would have to be sorted out before federal Canada could respond to Quebec.

To assuage anxieties, Quebec separatists assured voters they could have it both ways, keeping their Canadian passports and dollars, defense and economic arrangements, while proclaiming nationhood. The premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, a morose and unpopular figure, handed leadership of the campaign to his charismatic ally in the federal parliament, Lucien Bouchard. These tricks sufficed to swing opinion polls from rejection to a dead heat, hence the sense of impending panic.

Fifteen years ago, Quebecers rejected separation in referendum by 60 to 40. This time, they ought at least refrain from plunging all Canada into confusion unless they really mean it. They cannot be sovereign and Canadian, too.

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