It was actually at 8.59pm, not quite an hour after the polls closed, that the tide turned and the "Oui" lead started to evaporate. The agony came at 9.34, when for a brief moment the tallies projected on the jumbo screens actually read 50:50 before the "Nons" pulled ahead. Suddenly, that same room seemed quite empty. To say the mood sagged does not begin to capture it. The same faces that minutes before had been contorted in expressions of raw excitement had gone quite blank. Eyes stared and hundreds of men and women wept silently. A distraught young man charged a camera man and bellowed into the lens, "C'est la guerre maintenant".
It was a night of chants and songs. Quebec's Premier, Jacques Parizeau, who disgraced himself in his concession speech by blaming defeat on the ethnic minority, could not resist joining in from the podium the rhythmic refrain of his followers, "Le Quebec aux Quebecois!" (Quebec for Quebeckers). Across town at the victorious "Non" camp in the Metropole, a night club taken over for the night, federalist supporters retorted with a taunting variation on the same chorus: "Le Quebec au Canada! Le Quebec au Canada!" (Quebec in Canada). Earlier in the day, the superstitious may have seen a good omen for the "Oui" side in some unexpected flurries of snow across Montreal. In his anthem for independence, folk musician Gilles Vigneault - to Quebeckers what Jacques Brel is to francophone Belgians - sang: "Mon pays, ce n'est pas mon pays, c'est l'hiver. Mon pays, ce n'est pas mon pays, c'est le neige" (My country, it is not my country, it is winter. My country, it is not my country, it is snow). But the forecast for Montreal yesterday? "Melting flurries".
Belgium's list of famous people is harder to compile even than Canada's. But this old Brussels hack did a double-take early in the proceedings at the Palais des Congres when he spotted the bucolic features of none other than Jose Happart in the crowd. You know, Jose Happart. Well you probably don't, but he was the man who rekindled the separatist flame in the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium in the late Eighties as the mayor of Les Fourons, a group of francophone hamlets marooned in an otherwise totally Flemish part of the country. With the red cockerel of Wallonia emblazoned on his dark-blue tie, Mr Happart had high hopes of a "Oui" victory which he was ready to use as ammunition to relaunch once more the campaign for devolution in Belgium. "It will show that peaceful separation is possible," he explained. "If the no side wins, it will be because of money." Not to mention those pesky, spoil-sport, ethnics.
Among these is the helpful gentleman in my hotel gift shop who for the past two days has been gathering armfuls of newspapers and magazines for my education. This is the Chinatown Holiday Inn - replete with twin pagodas perched on its facade - and my helpful friend, like almost everyone in this neighbourhood, is himself ethnic Chinese. "It was disgraceful, just disgraceful what he said," he railed this morning. "Mr Parizeau should resign. You know, we all of us have the same dream for this country; it is in our hearts and in our heads. I watched him and I felt really stunned". Mr Parizeau would have done well to have had the Chinese in Montreal on his side. They number just about 50,000, exactly the number by which the Oui side fell short in the final result (roughly the number of people to fill a good-sized football stadium).
It has been a good few days in Montreal for people inclined towards fancy-dress. Even as the city voted on Monday, the most fervent of the "Oui" and "Non" camps were out and about flaunting their convictions by way of their attire. There was Deepak Massand, who stood all day on the corner of Ste Catherine and Peel Streets downtown, dressed from head to toe in a toga made up of the federalist maple leaf and the blue fleur- de-lis of Quebec. Presumably, it kept him warm. Pacing the other side of Ste Catherine was Mario Trottier, who, as well as wearing a Frankenstein mask, brandished a cut-out coffin and crucifix bearing the message "Non au S - OUI - CIDE!". Peeling off the mask to speak for a moment, he explained: "I am just trying to defend myself and defend Canada". A few passers-by responded with a one-digit gesture. "Look at them, they are saying 'F... You'," says Mario. "Well, I say ..." and he blew them a kiss. Mario and Deepak were gone from Ste Catherine yesterday, to be replaced only by the costume-ball enthusiasts of Hallowe'en. Many were looking out for the return of the walking, talking toothbrush, an annual fixture on the pavements here on 31 October.
For Canada's markets and business community, the result was the right one, if only just, and all the dark rumours of the last week can be forgotten. These included tall tales of Mr Parizeau himself arranging to have his life savings transferred to a bank in Vermont, of an American bank syndicate threatening to pull out of a loan to back up Quebec's crippling debt and of multinational companies in the province, like Air Canada and Pratt and Whitney, preparing to pull out in the event of a "Oui" victory. My own interest on election day was in a certain British retailing company with a large outlet on Ste Catherine, just a block from the toga-clad Mr Massand. Its awnings already decked out for Christmas, Marks & Spencer beckoned like a calm sanctuary in the electoral storm. Inside were the familiar racks of socks, underpants and pyjamas and, most importantly, shelves upon shelves of luxury Christmas puddings. St Michael, you see, has not yet penetrated my normal stamping ground, New York.Reuse content