AT BEST, it would be a painful, messy divorce. If Quebec votes Monday to secede, separatists' initial joy will be followed almost certainly by protracted wrangling with an embittered Canada over debt, trade and division of property.
Who would get those high-tech air force fighters based in Quebec? How would Canada's national debt be divvied up? Under what terms could a sovereign Quebec gain membership in NAFTA?
The federal government has pointedly avoided detailed answers to such questions, hoping the separatists lose the referendum. But the latest polls in the mostly French-speaking province show a narrow majority in favor of independence, and the outcome is very much in doubt.
Doomsayers say a separatist win would knock the Canadian dollar to an all-time low, jack up interest rates, and virtually freeze any new investment in Quebec.
"It's uncharted territory," said economist Mario Angastiniotis. "We've never had the breakup of the country before."
The separatist leaders, Parliament member Lucien Bouchard and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, say the aftermath of a "Yes" vote for independence doesn't have to be traumatic.
Markets would be soothed, they say, if Canada would pledge to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate an equitable economic and political partnership with Quebec.
The referendum question alludes to such a partnership, and the separatists say they are willing to wait up to a year to declare independence, as long as they feel Canada is negotiating in good faith.
But Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a Quebecker who opposes separation, has refused to commit himself to negotiations and has never explicitly promised that his federal government would accept the outcome of a narrow "Yes" victory.
"The rest of Canada is not a country," Chretien said last week. "Who can predict the reactions of the nine other provinces, let alone predict that they would manage to reach consensus?"
Some political experts say Chretien might call a second referendum nationwide, to let all of Canada have a say on Quebec's status.
Separatists say this would backfire.
"Such an attempt to thwart democracy would spark a solidarity never before seen in Quebec," Bouchard said. …