Quebec on the brink of a historic 'Oui' Vote offers no relief for Canada's wound

Shawinigan, Quebec - Here perhaps, where Claude Rompreis marshalling his troops, the battle will be decided. Not in cosmopolitan Montreal, one of the great cities of North America, just 100 miles away to the south- west and half a world away in spirit - but here in what they call le Quebec profond, in the drab, enclosed universe of the French-speaking provinces, on a rainy afternoon resembling nothing so much as a banlieue (suburb) of Lille or Liege, transplanted into the New World.

Only too visibly in Shawinigan, a culture and a way of life are besieged. Every other shop or office seems empty, a "local a louer" sign in its window. In 30 years, the town has lost 10,000 people, a third of its population, as the chemical, metal and textile companies havegone, and Shawinigan's young have largely followed.

Yet from this dismal landscape, Mr Rompre draws inspiration. Two years ago, running as a Quebec nationalist candidate in the general election, he was soundly defeated in this very constituency by Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister. Today he is running the local separatist campaign for next Monday's sovereignty referendum - and suddenly he feels he's about to get his own back.

"Our support around here is up to 60 per cent," he says as he scours lists of registered voters at the Oui headquarters, the blue Quebec flag decorated with white fleurs de lis fluttering outside. "Chretien won in 1993 but that was because the Conservatives collapsed and non-nationalists were terrified we would have the balance of power in Ottawa. But that argument doesn't apply now. Besides, apocalyptic warnings about the economy don't scare people any more. Back in 1980 [at the last referendum on Quebec sovereignty] they warned us that if we voted Oui, interest rates and unemployment would rise. So the Non won, and what happened? Interest rates and unemployment rose."

Not only in Shawinigan but across the province, something has changed in the last few days. The government keeps up a drumbeat of menace: "Make no mistake, this is about separation," federal ministers warn, claiming a million jobs might be at risk if Quebec cuts loose. A fortnight ago the strategy was working and the Non camp seemed headed for easy victory. No longer. Polls last week put the separatists slightly ahead, and the Canadian dollar plunged three-quarters of a cent as the financial markets shuddered that the unthinkable might happen, that Quebec might defy economic logic and vote to leave Canada. As Marcel Cote, a veteran political strategist and Montreal business consultant who has written a book explaining why victory for the separatists would be a calamity, notes drily: "That was not in the script."

But then Lucien Bouchard wasn't in the script either. Eleven months ago, the leader of the Quebec bloc in Ottawa lost his left leg - and almost his life - in a bout with the infamous "flesh eating" bacteria, and Jacques Parizeau, the nationalist prime minister elected in Quebec's provincial election last year, took charge of the referendum campaign. But as defeat loomed, the separatists turned to Bouchard to take over, and the effect was electrifying. To an existing warmth and charm, near-fatal illness lent a martyr's status. He appeals to both strands of nationalism: out and out separatists, and more cautious souls weighing patriotism against economic risk. "He's talking to the soft middle that the Oui camp must get," says Mr Cote, "the people who want to be independent and yet stay in Canada. Lucien's saying, 'Go with me and I'll get you a hell of a deal'."

If that sounds confusing, it is. Polls show that many people who plan to vote Oui do not actually want to leave Canada, but feel that a dramatic gesture is the only means of securing redress for their grievances. One found that 25 per cent of them believed a Yes would not mean independence. Hard-core secessionists represent at most a third of the electorate.

But Mr Bouchard, emotional and brushing aside the finer economic points, has tapped into something else: Quebec's sense of being discriminated against, victimised, into what Mr Rompre calls "the long history written on our very bones". As the writer Yves Beauchemin puts it: "The very notion of Canadian 'union' is a fraud. It was made not between free partners but between conquerors and conquered."

Increasingly exasperated, "Anglo" Canada begs to differ, pointing out the special privileges already enjoyed by Quebec, including the right to control immigration and an annual 11bn Canadian dollars (pounds 5.35bn) budget transfer from Ottawa. Enough is enough, argues Dr Harold Waller, professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal: "The intellectual baggage is out of date, they're fighting battles that are long over."

But the question which baffles most Canadians whose mother tongue is not French is another: by any yardstick Canada is one of the best countries in the world in which to live, so why on earth does Quebec want to leave? Mr Bouchard answers with an even simpler question, the one he asks the enraptured crowds at every campaign stop: "Est-ce qu'on va etre un peuple?"

Behind the intensity lies a fear: that this might be the last chance for Quebeckers to become a people, before they are assimilated into the rest of Canada. Demographics are moving inexorably against them. In Montreal for example, home to almost half Quebec's 7.3 million population, the proportion of native French-speakers is 60 per cent and falling. As they leave the land for the big cities, the young are losing interest in the cause, while immigrants are overwhelmingly opposed.

Hence the the sense on both sides of the argument that it's now or never.

The newspapers are filled by learned columnists speculating over the implications of a Yes vote. Negotiations between Ottawa and Quebec first or a declaration of UDI by Messrs Parizeau and Bouchard? Will the federal government hold as firm as it now says it will, and as Anglo Canada wants it to be? It might be wondered too whether Mr Chretien and the other Quebeckers in the government, all from a province that has broken with Canada, can even stay in office. Will the Crees and Hurons and the other Indian nations which have been granted huge territories in the north break away from Quebec? And that is apart from the economic disentangling, the division of debt, the currency, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The mess will be epic.

But even the Non, which most Quebeckers still expect, is unlikely to resolve matters. Barring a massive defeat for the separatists, Canada's great sore, the equivalent of race in America, will continue to fester. So much was acknowledged by Mr Chretien last week to Kim Young-Sam, the visiting South Korean President who knows a thing or two about divided countries. "We've been at this for 30 years, and when my grandson is Prime Minister of Canada, and your grandson is Prime Minister of South Korea, they'll still be on about it." Which is another way of saying that 31 October, the morning after, will just be the start of it.