Canada has survived as a unified country by a margin so slim it would fit into a football stadium. But the close vote revealed a surge in separatist support in Quebec that poses a serious problem for the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien and his Liberal government in Ottawa.
When the final votes were tallied late on Monday evening, there were just 50,000 votes between the "no" side at 50.6 per cent of the almost 5 million votes cast, compared with 49.4 per cent for the separatists. But the demographics of the electorate, in which the English-speaking population, immigrants and native people voted massively for remaining in Canada, mean that a clear majority of francophones voted for separatism.
Mr Chretien tried to downplay the seriousness of the situation he now faces - a result the Ottawa Citizen headlined as "Divided We Stand" - when he met the House of Commons yesterday for the first time since the voting. His government is working on a package of changes, he said, but he was vague about whether they included constitutional amendments or just changes in programmes that can be accomplised by the federal government alone.
Evidence that the linguistic and cultural tensions are going to increase because of the nationalists' frustration surfaced within hours. Even if at least a quarter of the people who voted for the separatists did not want independence, the outcome means there is a strong desire for a change in Quebec's relationship with the rest of the Canadian federation.
Many of those francophone voters responded to an appeal by Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard to give him a strong bargaining card to play against English Canada.
Mr Bouchard was largely responsible for the separatists' revival.
The vote amounts to a repudiation of the approach taken by the Prime Minister, who had argued that the structure had protected French language and culture and had allowed Quebeckers to flourish.
Only in the last week of the referendum campaign, as it appeared the separatists could win, was Mr Chretien forced to change his position, promising at a major rally in Montreal that all avenues of change would be open to Quebeckers if they voted to stay within Canada, including constitutional changes to recognise Quebec as a distinct society and possibly giving it a special legal status that would not be shared with the other nine provinces.
Now Mr Chretien has to deliver some form of change quickly, because the separatists have said they will try to have another referendum to capitalise on their momentum.
People in Quebec and in the rest of Canada on both sides of the issue had hoped the result would be more decisive, so that they could get on with other, mainly economic challenges. But Quebec now seems destined to move to the top of the federal government's agenda.
Mr Chretien and his senior cabinet colleagues are despondent because they know the potential pitfalls of attempting to rewrite the constitution. Two attempts to ratify constitutional amendments over the past five years have failed because of opposition from some of the other provincial governments in the anglophone part of the country with the result that separatist support has increased.Reuse content