The symbolism was clear. Not only will a separatist victory in tomorrow's referendum rip the centre out of the world's largest country, but for many Canadians in what is left of Canada, it will have killed its soul.
As the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, said in his emotional television address to the nation last week, Quebec separation would be the "the end of a dream" of a plural society in which people of two different languages and cultures could prosper side by side in a shared state. It would be the failure of the notion that Quebeckers would accept a double- layered identity as good Canadians and good Quebeckers.
The thousands of people from outside Quebec who drove in their cars for hundreds of miles, or hired buses and aircraft to get to Montreal to wave flags and to bear witness, represent a large segment of the population, maybe even a majority, who want Quebec to stay in the Canadian federation, for personal, philosophic and economic reasons. But there is also a sizeable group of Canadians, especially in the western provinces, who believe the response, if a majority of Quebeckers vote Yes, should be "bon voyage!"
If the separatist nightmare does become a reality, the rest of Canada will be thrown into an angry confusion with no clear idea of what to do next, or indeed who should be attempting to negotiate with the nascent Quebec state. In the nasty debate leading up to the referendum vote, separatists, especially the Bloc Quebecois leader, Lucien Bouchard, talked about English-speaking Canada as if it was a monolith. In fact, there is no organisation or government with a mandate to act on behalf of the rest of Canada.
Provincial leaders including the Ontario Premier, Mike Harris, and New Brunswick's Premier, Frank McKenna, have made it clear that they have no interest in creating a new economic and political partnership that the separatist leaders say they would want after Quebec became independent.
Nor are they happy about Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau's proposal that a sovereign Quebec would still use the Canadian dollar, and that Quebeckers will be entitled to dual Canadian and Quebec citizenship and Canadian passports.
One option, if the vote is as close as the polls are forecasting, would be to challenge the validity of the referendum, especially since the question was so ambiguous. Another option would be a new federal election or another referendum, with a clearer question.
The situation will be made more complex by the native people living in Quebec, especially the Cree, who claim much of Northern Quebec. Their Grand Chief, Matthew Coon-Come, has already stated that if Quebec has the right to self-determination, the same right applies to a Cree breakaway from Quebec. The Cree have already voted in their own referendum, with 96 per cent opting to stay in Canada. In the short run, people will be looking to Mr Chretien and his cabinet, along with the provincial premiers, to take a lead. But since the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Culture are all from Quebec and represent Quebec constituencies in parliament, their legitimacy to represent the rest of Canada in negotiations will be questioned.
In straightforward physical terms, the loss of Quebec, with an area of 595,000 square miles (larger than France, the UK and Germany combined) and 7.3 million people, will be traumatic. It amounts to 15 per cent of the Canadian land mass and 25 per cent of the total population. Moreover, it will split the remaining part of the country into two unconnected pieces, leaving 2 million Canadians in the four Atlantic provinces isolated from Ontario and the west.
The overwhelming response to a Yes vote will be anger and a sense of rejection in the rest of the country. It will be seen as a lack of appreciation for the many concessions made over the years to accommodate the French language and culture.
Currently, all federal institutions operate in both languages and there are extensive programs for linguistic minorities. One of the more impressive gestures towards accommodation with Quebec over the past decade involve the 800,000 children in English-speaking Canada enrolled in French immersion classes, where they take all instruction in French.
The programme is gradually creating a new generation of bilingual Canadians. But without Quebec, there will be less incentive for the federal government and private citizens to maintain their outreach in French. This in turn will hurt the interests of the approximately million French-speaking Canadians who live outside Quebec, mostly in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba.
But there will also be a resentment that the rest of Canada will also pay a high price, in economic terms and national pride. The loss of Quebec would probably mean Canada losing its membership in the Group of Seven large industrial econo-mies, for instance. It was pressure from Canada, with the help of an endorsement from the US, that expanded the G-5 to include Canada and Italy. Take away the 23 per cent of gross domestic product represented by Quebec, and Canada drops to eighth position, behind Spain.
The G-7 is only one example of the reduced international clout of a Canada of 22 million instead of more than 29 million. Canada has often punched above its weight because of the aggressive role it has played in international institutions such as the UN, especially in peace-keeping operations. The ability to operate in English and French has often given Canadians an edge.
Fewer resources overall and the loss of peace-keeping contributions will limit its future role. The uncertainty about Quebec has already had a significant impact on exchange and interest rates. That has meant higher mortgage rates for people in all parts of Canada and an economic slowdown associated with higher interest rates in general.
There will be a serious financial crunch as Quebec and the rest of the country wrangle over their relative shares of the $600bn in accumulated national debt. Both sides will have difficulty selling their bonds as lenders worry about repayment.
Canada's largest airline, its state-owned railway , and several of the largest chartered banks are based in Montreal, and there will be pressure from the rest of Canada to move their assets out of Quebec. The Bon Voyage faction point to the longer-term savings to the taxpayers in the rest of Canada, since Quebec has been the net beneficiary in most federal programmes.
A Vancouver-based think-tank, the Fraser Institute, concluded after extensive studies that Quebec's net fiscal benefit from the rest of Canada, the difference between taxes and unemployment insurance premi- ums collected in Quebec, and all the pensions, subsidies, transfer payments, and other social benefits paid by Ottawa, amounted to $4.9bn in 1990, about $700 per capita. It's not just a question of taxes and pensions. People in the rest of Canada will want a share of the assets that benefited from federal subsidies. Instead of a velvet divorce, the aftermath of a Yes vote has all the makings of an acrimonious custody battle.