Premier begs Quebec not to destroy union

The Canadian government has finally intervened directly in the Quebec referendum battle with an 11th-hour appeal for unity. It reflects an air almost of desperation in Ottawa as the leaders of the Liberal government realise separatists may win Monday's vote.

Invoking a rarely-used section of the Broadcasting Act relating to national crises, Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, commandeered national air time for an emotional plea to fellow Quebeckers not to turn their backs on the country they helped to build.

Federalists also have organised a rally in Montreal today, at which thousands of Canadians will join federalists within the province to strengthen the message that they want Quebec to remain in Canada.

Looking haggard and older than his 61 years, Mr Chretien warned Quebeckers not to be fooled by the separatist promise of a trouble-free divorce after which they can have independence and keep the benefits of economic union with Canada.

He repeated that he would support changes in the constitution to include recognition of Quebec as a distinct society and to restore Quebec's veto over changes that might affect its language, culture and power within the confederation.

His promise was attacked by Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois party in the federal parliament and de facto leader of the separatist campaign in Quebec. He said the Prime Minister's about-turn on constitutional reform was phoney. "There is no wind of change blowing through Ottawa, just a wind of panic," he said.

Until this week, Mr Chretien had remained aloof from the campaign, making only a fewspeeches in Quebec restating his belief that most Quebeckers would not vote to break up Canada.

He has also opposed new constitutional discussions after the failure of previous attempts in 1990 and 1992.

Speaking in both English and French, Mr Chretien admitted for the first time that Canada faced a crisis: "What is at stake is our country. What is at stake is our heritage."

He challenged separatists to provide one good reason to destroy Canada and bring about "the end of a country that has made us the envy of the world." He also asked whether the French language and culture would be better protected by a small state of 7 million people up against 250 million English-speakers in North America.

The English-Canadian pilgrimage to Montreal today was sparked off by the Fisheries Minister, Brian Tobin, the silver-tongued Newfoundlander who became a national hero when he led the fight against Spanish fisherman in the so-called turbot war. Within hours, the two national airlines had announced a "unity fare", allowing anyone to fly to Montreal for as little as 10 per cent of the regular price, sparking a clamour for tickets.

News Analysis, page 21