Quebec emerged yesterday from the referendum still joined to the rest of Canada but more divided within itself than ever before and scarred by pitched fighting on the streets of Montreal.
With the final tally giving only the tiniest of margins to the "no" camp, separatist leaders vowed to continue the fight, implying that the constitutional nightmare is far from over.
The relaying of the final result on the jumbo projection screen in the Palais des Congres was too much for some "yes" supporters, who crumbled in tears and dejection. For much of the evening, it had seemed that the returns were driving towards a sovereigntist victory and turned in favour of the federalists only after results started coming in from the island of Montreal itself, which voted very heavily against separation.
Some ignored the appeals for calm, responding instead to the rhetoric of premier Jacques Parizeau who, before his resignation yesterday, blamed defeat on big business and "ethnic groups''.
Supporters of "yes" and "no" camps clashed in the streets of Montreal. Shops were looted and police reported an arson attack against the offices of Daniel Johnson, the leader of the Quebec opposition and the province's standard bearer for Canada.
Speaking to thousands of tearful supporters of the "yes" campaign in the Palais des Congres, Mr Parizeau had characterised the result in inflammatory terms of "us and them" - French-speakers and the rest. His remarks appeared to destroy at a stroke the progress made in recent years to transform the Quebec secessionist movement, founded 30 years ago by Rene Levesque, from a narrow nationalist, even racist, one into a pluralist and broad- based political force.
Last night Mr Parizeau said he regretted his choice of words in his speech after the referendum result. "I used words that were too strong last night," he admitted. But he added that this did not change the reality that ethnic groups had voted overwhelmingly against secession. He said he had decided long ago to resign if the separatist bid failed so that a new leader could take over the cause.
The premier had been emboldened in defeat by the fact that, for the first time, a majority of French-speakers voted in favour of separation. In the 1980 Quebec referendum, the "no'' side won by a resounding 60 per cent.
Both Mr Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the opposition in the federal parliament in Ottawa and head of the Bloc Quebecois party, promised to continue the fight for independence. Saying it was time to "roll up the sleeves" to start again, Mr Parizeau reflected: "We were so close to a country. It's delayed a little - not a long time, not a long time. We won't wait 15 years next time." But Mr Bouchard, who has risen to eclipse Mr Parizeau as the inspirational leader of the secessionist forces, avoided all bitterness.
Young federalists at the victory celebrations in Montreal said Prime Minister Jean Chretien must now be more open to constitutional reform that would meet some of the aspirations of Quebec's French nationalists. "I think people have said they want to stay in Canada, but they want a new constitution," said Isabelle St-Laurent. "We want more than Canada has offered us. Jean Chretien has no choice." Randy Ferguson, a hotel employee, agreed. "I think even people on the 'no' side are ready for a bit of change. There has to be. We are at a dead end."
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