Great divide strikes home

Quebec referendum: Family ties and friendships break down as polls indicate a 50-50 result


Whatever the results of today's referendum on Quebec's sovereignty, the acrimonious campaign which preceded it has already opened sharp divisions in the province's society - between the old-stock French-speakers and the immigrant and English-speaking communities.

While the latest polls say the vote on whether to end the union with English-speaking Canada is too close to call, the referendum has also created bitter ruptures within the Francophone community itself, splitting families and fracturing friendships.

Even if the No side wins by a small margin (anything less than 10 per cent), it will mean that a majority of Francophones will have voted for separation but will have been frustrated by the solid pro-federalist vote by the Anglophone and immigrant (referred to here as Allophone) communities, which together account for about 20 per cent of the voting population. A Groupe Leger & Leger poll published on Saturday found 46.8 per cent of Quebeckers would vote Yes, 42.4 would vote No and the rest were undecided or would not say - results in keeping with polls published a few days earlier. But experience in Quebec elections has shown that polls tend to over-estimate support for sovereignty and for the separatist parties because federalists are more hesitant to give their opinion, fearing ostracism by the nationalists. Experience also shows that the largest portion of the undecideds vote conservatively. As a result, Leger & Leger predicted the vote as 50 Yes, 50 No.

In the final weekend of campaigning, Jacques Parizeau, the Quebec Premier, and Lucien Bouchard, who leads the Bloc Quebecois separatist party in the federal parliament, complained bitterly about what they considered unwarranted outside interference.

They were trying to neutralise the impact of a huge pro-Canada rally on Friday, when thousands of Canadians travelled to Montreal in an attempt to show that Quebeckers are loved and wanted by the rest of the country. The two national airlines offered discount "unity fares", school boards provided buses and telephone companies planned to offer free five-minute calls, some of which would have been "cold calls" to numbers taken from Quebec directories.

"Why don't they just get off our backs and let us vote?" Mr Parizeau said on Saturday.

Thousands of Canadians ignored Mr Parizeau's criticism last night to attend candle-lit vigils in most provincial capitals. Many churches outside Quebec also held special services to pray for national unity.

When the referendum was originally announced, no one expected the outcome to be as close as it now appears. Mr Parizeau has a reputation for abruptness and arrogance, had accrued little personal following, and the polls indicated 10 to 15 percentage point leads for the federalists. Facing what appeared to be certain defeat, the separatists forced the unpopular Premier to the sidelines and Mr Bouchard took over the campaign.