FULLY 93 PERCENT of Quebec's eligible voters turned out for the referendum on sovereignty. They really cared. The outcome was so close -- 49.44 percent in favor but 50.56 percent opposed -- that nothing was decided.
Technically, the bid failed. The procedure pledged by the Quebec government will not go forward. But the separatists' gain from a 60-40 loss 15 years ago was so great that their message is to continue. They have no incentive now to make Canada work.
Separatists' view in any country is that if you lose a plebiscite, you hold it again and again until you win it, and the first win will be permanent and irreversible. Nationalisms may wither and lie dormant. They never die out.
This moral dead heat was a personal triumph for the most exciting politician in Canada, Lucien Bouchard, the one-time Conservative federal cabinet minister who now leads the separatist opposition in the federal parliament. Mr. Bouchard recovered from flesh-eating bacteria and a leg amputation last December to lead this fight. Public admiration for his indomitable spirit carried over into the campaign. The outcome was, at the same time, no personal triumph for the man who made it happen, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau. He handed leadership of the campaign to his rival, Mr. Bouchard, as the only hope of winning.
But Canada is back in the soup. The real loser was federal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who now takes on the task of accommodating Quebec nationalists who don't want to be accommodated in behalf of non-Quebecers who don't want to accommodate them. Yet his cause is just. Separatists never could make good their facile promises that Quebecers can have it both ways, Canadian and independent, simultaneously and at no cost.
Most Canadians outside Quebec also lost. What most have wanted is to have this settled and done, and not have to talk about constitutional revision any more. This outcome assures that it will be talked about incessantly. The late surge of non-Quebecers -- perhaps a minority -- who begged Quebecers to stay in Canada, gave the campaign its true passion and reversed the momentum at the end.
Canada is now weakened. Quebec society is badly split, with recriminations likely to grow. This deadlock is not stable. The new political situation will tip opinion toward or away from federalism. Canadian unity is in the best interest of all Canadians and all North America, but the question however aggravating remains to be addressed all over again.