A Canada Apart? Throng Cries Non

Article excerpt

Flag-waving Canadians from every province streamed into Montreal on Friday, joining Quebeckers rallying for national unity three days before a referendum that could propel Quebec toward secession.

Drawing tens of thousands of people, it was the biggest political rally in Canada of this century, historians said.

Montreal's main square, the tree-lined Place du Canada, was a sea of wind-whipped flags - the red-and-white maple leaf of Canada and the blue-and-white lilies of Quebec, the country's French-speaking province.

Chants of "Non, non, non" - "no" to separation - echoed through the city center, and signs in French and English said, "We belong together" and "My Canada includes Quebec."

Organizers put the crowd total at more than 100,000. Although police had no immediate estimate, Montrealers said it was the biggest rally in city history. "I don't want to look back 10 years from now and think there was something I could have done that I didn't do," said Mindi Cofman, 44, of Vancouver, British Columbia. "Having Quebec in Canada is part of my identity."

But Charles Olivier, a separatist hot dog vendor doing brisk business at the rally, said the show of affection was too little, too late.

"It shows they really care for us," he said. "But it's too late. I don't know if things will be better with a `yes,' but I don't think they could be worse."

There were a few scuffles on the fringes of the rally. Two separatists said people tore down their "Yes" sign and called them fascists. But generally the event was peaceful, as were smaller rallies held across Canada.

Monday's referendum will gauge the depth of longstanding cultural tension between English- and French-speaking Canada. Although Quebec has wrung extensive autonomy and language rights from the federal government, separatists say its French culture can flourish only in an independent state.

Opponents of separation inside and outside Quebec say the province's cultural aspirations can be met without the potentially costly and bitter recourse of splitting Canada.

A separatist victory would not trigger immediate independence, but the separatists say that would be the result. …