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Poll puts Canada close to disintegration

There are no practical arguments in favour of Quebec's secession
A MIDDLE-AGED man in a pea-green shirt, matching Donald Duck tie and brown fedora was sitting at a bar in downtown Montreal reading La Presse, a newspaper that describes itself as "the biggest French daily in the Americas". The man was chuckling. "They say Canadians are dull and boring," he said in English. "Actually, we're quite insane."

Nick Auf Der Maur, a former Montreal city councillor, was prompted to this conclusion by the story that dominated the front page of his newspaper. In eight days time Quebec voters will be faced with a momentous decision. On Monday 30 October they will be asked in a referendum whether they wish to secede from Canada. A "Oui" vote of 50 per cent plus one will effectively destroy a nation whose geographical boundaries have remained largely intact since Westminster passed the British North America Act of 1867.

But the story Mr Auf Der Maur was pointing to concerned the crisis at Montreal Canadiens. The aristocrats of North American ice hockey had lost their first four matches of the season. The team's owner, La Presse informed a convulsed nation, had responded by firing the coach and the general manager.

Elsewhere on the page, under a more discreet headline, La Presse let its more attentive readers know that for the first time since the referendum campaign began in September the public opinion polls were showing the "Ouis" ahead of the "Nons". The unthinkable, the unimaginable notion that the country with - according to a United Nations report in August - the best quality of life in the world might actually follow in the splintered path of the former Soviet Union suddenly appeared to be a real possibility.

What the curious priorities of La Presse indicated was that the French- speaking Quebecois , who make up 86 per cent of the province's population, have only a dim sense of the enormity of the decision they face. A people who have reached the most refined point of peace and material felicity achieved in the history of the human race are on the verge of taking a leap into the unknown, of embarking on a revolution which will possibly precipitate social unrest and economic decline, as well as undermining Canada's international status as a member of the G7 elite.

"We're sleepwalking towards the abyss," was the despairing response of a member of Quebec's English-speaking minority. A distressed Iranian taxi-driver, one of 700,000 foreign immigrants in a city of three million, observed: "Human beings need pain and problems - it is the only explanation for this craziness."

Despite the impending ferment and the demise of the Canadiens, life has carried on much as usual in Montreal. Something of a furore erupted in the media last week when a male "Non" campaigner called a female "Oui" campaigner "a separatist cow". But the offender promptly apologised. Otherwise, no hostile incidents have been reported.

There have been occasional moments of excitement, however. On Wednesday evening 3,500 men in suits crammed themselves into a carpeted city centre ballroom to express their horror at the prospect of secession. The Canadian dollar will plunge, interest rates will rise and the economy will be ruined, the city's businessmen complained with passion and indignation. When one of the few women in the room declared that the "femmes d'affaires" of Quebec refused "to play lottery with the future of Canada" she brought the house down.

What are the "Oui" voters thinking of? They are not thinking. They are on fire, set alight by Lucien Bouchard. Bouchard, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois in the Ottawa parliament, is a white-hot orator with a booming voice who pounds his fists a great deal and terrifies audiences with the warning that to remain in Canada is to face cultural annihilation, to look on helplessly, members of "une minorite risible" as the French language is diluted in the vast ocean of "English North America". Mr Bouchard, who was separated from his left leg last year after a flesh-eating bacteria attack, has managed to transform his painful predicament into a politically fruitful metaphor. The constitutionally truncated Quebecois appear to view him as the heroic embodiment of a glorious nationalist cause.

Romance is the political currency of the independence camp. Seldom do they deviate into reason. They fully anticipate, for example, that following secession they will retain the Canadian dollar, complete with its portrait of the Queen. They imagine they will keep their Canadian passports and their capacity to trade with, and work in, the rest of the Canada. Somehow, as the more withering critics of secession have observed, they imagine that they will acquire independence but still remain part of Canada, that they will have their cake and eat it too.

Canadians who live outside Quebec, having no say over a decision which will critically affect their lives, are frothing with indignation at the prospect of their country being torn apart by a collection of romantic madmen. Such a man, it would seem, is Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal. A zealous separatist, Mr Martin was unable during a two-hour conversation to come up with one coherent practical argument in favour of separation.

A fact he could not dispute was that the French language had been gaining ground in C anada in recent years. Since the Sixties Canada has been an officially bilingual country. French and English are spoke at the national parliament in Ottawa and in Vancouver the labels on cereal boxes must be written partly in French. In Quebec itself, by special dispensation from Ottawa, French is the only official language. By law, all street signs must be in French. Hence in Montreal you see "Rue McTavish" and "Rue Dorchester" alongside "Rue de la Montagne". Five years ago 11,000 road signs bearing the injunction "Stop" were removed and replaced with ones that read "Arret". And besides, for 25 of the last 27 years, the prime ministers of Canada have come from Quebec.

Those with most reason to complain are not the Quebecois minority but the English-speaking majority. Yet, as Mr Martin explained, "le coeur a ses raisons". "I remember when I was a little boy," he said, his voice redolent of the longing and sadness of the Quebec provincial motto, je me souviens. "I remember my mother was driving me around Quebec City. She told me all the houses there had been built after 1760. 'Why are there no older houses?' I asked. 'Because the English burnt them all down,' she said."

The historical event seared into the collective memory of the Quebecois is the Battle of the Plains of Abraham of 1759, when General James Wolfe defeated the French army, under the leadership of the Marquis de Montcalm, paving the way for Britain's accession of the whole of Nouvelle France in 1763.

What drives the separatists, as Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto explained, is the notion that they will finally undo at the ballot box what was done on the field of battle. Dr Wiseman, in common with most of the inhabitants of the rest of Canada (ROC, as they call it in Quebec) cannot quite believe that the "Oui" vote will prevail. There have been such alarms before, notably in the referendum of 1980, when Quebecers voted by 60 to 40 to remain in the union. But the latest poll result on Friday, which predicts a 51-49 result in favour of secession, is beginning to shake ROC complacency, raising the alarming suspicion that this time, when the Quebecois cry Wolfe, they might mean it.