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Quebecois Equally Divided In Early Secession Results

By Charles Trueheart
The Washington Post
MONTREAL

Residents of Quebec voting in a historic referendum on secession from Canada split almost evenly Monday between sovereignty for their French-speaking province and loyalty to the Canadian union, according to early results.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., reporting 54.7 percent of the tallied vote at 9:25 p.m. EST, put the yes vote in favor of separation at 50.1 percent and the no vote in favor of Canadian unity at 49.9 percent. It offered no projected victor.

The referendum was the climax of a long struggle for self-determination among Quebecers, who represent a quarter of Canada's mostly English-speaking population of 29 million and have felt their minority status keenly from the outset of confederation in 1867.

If the ballot proposal for a sovereign Quebec, which is combined with an offer of economic and political partnership with the rest of Canada, were to carry, it would launch the province on the road to independence and set in motion a bitter struggle within the fragile Canadian federation. But even a narrow rejection of the question would plunge the country into a prolonged constitutional wrangle to try to settle accounts with Quebec once and for all.

Heavy turnout in biting cold weather was reported at voting stations across the province, where more than 80 percent of the eligible voters are French speakers. The last polls of the campaign indicated that support for independence stood at 46 percent to 40 percent against, but the large percentage of undecided voters defied easy predictions.

Recent tracking polls conducted by the unity forces, according to sources, had given the no side a spasm of confidence that it could dodge the separatist bullet. Prime Minister Jean Chretien was preparing to address the nation from his office in Ottawa, the federal capital.

Running analysis of the early returns on Canadian television suggested two contradictory and puzzling trends: traditionally separatist areas were showing unexpectedly weak support for the yes, while traditionally pro-unity areas were showing unexpectedly weak support for the no.

Only 15 years ago, Quebecers voted 60 percent to 40 percent against a softer version of the same question. But in a pattern that is characteristic of Quebec's deeply ambivalent political sentiments, a year later they reelected their separatist champion, Rene Levesque, as premier of Quebec. His Parti Quebecois was voted out of office in 1985, and the job of rebuilding the party fell to Jacques Parizeau, his onetime finance minister.

Parizeau rejected the compromising strain Levesque had represented in the separatist movement and argued for unadorned "sovereignty." Parizeau's cause got a boost in 1990 with the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, which would have given Quebec "distinct society" status. That apparent rejection by the rest of Canada drove support for separation to unprecedented levels in the polls.

Following a second constitutional debacle, the nationwide rejection of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, which also would have granted Quebec special status, the separatist cause began to build a head of steam. In 1993, in the elections that brought Prime Minister Chretien and the Liberal Party back to power in the federal capital, Quebecers for the first time sent to Ottawa a large delegation of pro-separatist members of Parliament.

The Bloc Quebecois, founded and led by Lucien Bouchard, has the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons, which makes it Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Many in English Canada find it treasonous that such a state of affairs should be allowed to exist, and never more so than now.

Last year Parizeau led the Parti Quebecois back to power in the Quebec National Assembly, the provincial legislature that has retained the name it had before Canadian confederation, and set the stage for Monday's referendum.

He had originally envisioned a "simple question" to put to Quebecers, suggesting variations on "Do you want to become a sovereign country?" But persistently unfavorable public reaction to such a stark formulation led him to capitulate in June to moderating pressures from Bouchard and their young ally, Mario Dumont. The pair persuaded now-Premier Parizeau to attach to the question a second clause that held out to voters the promise of continued ties to the remains of Canada.