Jim Taylor drove his truck from Toronto, an 18-wheeler with 600,000 pro-unity signatures on the side. Harry Moll came from Ottawa with his 35-seat bicycle. John and Sheila Macleod arrived from Halifax, carting their three young children and an enormous bag of home-made muffins stuffed with chocolate chips. And Gaétan Laflamme simply brought himself, flying all the way from Edmonton draped in a red and white Canadian flag. Along with tens of thousands of others from across the country, they stood shoulder to shoulder under leaden skies last Friday while a brisk wind rippled the treetops in the broad square in downtown Montreal. There were chants and cheers, even a few tears. But they shouted longest and loudest when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a tiny break in his voice, thanked them all for demonstrating their devotion to a Canada that includes Quebec. “We will do what is needed,” Chrétien vowed. ‘We will make the changes that are needed so that Canada will move into the 21st century united from sea to sea.”
If he has erred in the past, the Prime Minister struck the right note on this occasion. For his words caught the mood of the massive midday rally in Montreal’s Place du Canada. It was an emotional affair, a huge outpouring of patriotic sentiment by people intent on appealing directly
to the hearts of Quebecers just three days before the vote so critical to the future of Quebec and Canada. ‘We came here to tell Quebecers in the only way we know how that we don’t want them to leave us,” said 42-year-old Halifax mother Sheila Macleod as she busily shovelled muffins in the direction of her three youngsters, each sporting painted, if chocolate-smeared, flags of Canada and Quebec on their faces. Nearby, Edmontonian Laflamme, 37, nodded in agreement as Conservative Leader Jean Charest told the crowd that “millions of millions of Quebecers are listening to you today.” Murmured Laflamme: “I hope he’s right. I hope all of this is not too little, too late.”
In terms of sheer numbers, it would have been difficult for anyone in Quebec to escape the message. Estimates of the size of the crowd varied, depending on the source. According to separatist spokesmen, including Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, the crowd numbered 35,000. Federalist organizers, citing unconfirmed police estimates, claimed that 150,000 had attended. But whatever the number, it was by far the largest single gathering of Quebec’s referendum campaign— and possibly the biggest political rally in the country’s modern history.
The participants came from far and near. Certainly, the vast majority
were locals, drawn from in and around Montreal. Traffic clogged the highways and bridges from the city’s suburbs, and all morning long, commuter trains from the city’s bedroom communities to the west and north were jammed with cheering suburbanites, most madly waving tiny Canadian and Quebec flags. But more remarkable was the response of those from much farther afield. The rally’s organizers estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people took part in what federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin christened the “Crusade for Canada.” Fuelled by bargain-basement discounts on Canadian Airlines and Air Canada, Via Rail and dozens of bus companies, they embarked on what amount1 ed to a cavalcade for national unity, s The grassroots effort came while political
£ leaders outside Quebec added their llth-hour I pleas to Quebecers to reject separation. The leg5 islatures of British Columbia and Prince Edward
y Island urged Que| becers to vote No; in Ontario and Nova Scotia, legislators passed resolutions recognizing Quebec’s distinctive character; and the legislatures of both New Brunswick and Newfoundland adopted resolutions calling for constitutional recognition of
Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada—a key nationalist demand.
But the efforts of ordinary citizens overshadowed the politicians’ gestures. Ottawa police estimated that as many as 4,000 people lined up outside the city’s baseball stadium on Friday morning, waiting to board a fleet of 105 buses provided by local school boards and transport companies. Elderly people leaning on canes mingled with screaming teenagers wrapped in Canadian flags. “You feel kind of helpless watching this whole thing on TV,” said 34-year-old John Turcotte, Quebec and Canadian flags jutting from the top of his Montreal Expos baseball cap. “Now, it’s clear the whole country could go down the tubes, so hopefully this rally might swing a few undecided voters in Quebec to vote the right way.”
There were similar stories right across Ca-
nada. In New Brunswick, nearly 1,500 people climbed aboard 30 buses donated by the Irving family-owned SMT Eastern bus line, held a rally at the Quebec border and then travelled on to Montreal to join Premier Frank McKenna and 40 members of his caucus in Place du Canada. In Saskatchewan, more than 100 people signed up for two charter flights to Montreal at $250 a ticket. At Vancouver International Airport, Nanaimo schoolteacher Louise Charland, boarding a 90-per-cent discounted Canadian Airlines flight to Montreal, said she was going to Quebec “to shake people up, one at a time.” In Brockville, Ont., where demonstrators created a national scandal in 1990 by stomping on the Quebec flag, local resident Dave Kelley spent $400 to put four busloads of neighbors on buses bound for Montreal. And in Toronto, local MPs organized a fleet of more than 100 buses. “It’s unprecedented,” said University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss as he remarked upon the spontaneous outburst in Place du Canada. “Canada’s like when a patient is going to die— you resort to heroic measures.”
Sovereigntists, naturally, viewed the rally in an entirely different light. Bouchard termed it an exercise in hypocrisy mounted against a backdrop of illegality. “It will cost us dearly to be told we’re loved,” Bouchard remarked at a Yes rally in SteHyacinthe, 50 km east of Montreal, mockingly holding his hand over his heart. Bouchard charged that the rally had cost as much as $4.3 million, and claimed that the transportation companies had violated Quebec’s strict referendum
funding law by discounting fares. Quebec’s chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Côté, supported his claim, warning six companies that they may face fines of up to $10,000. The companies, including both airlines, rejected the charges.
If there was rancor in the separatist camp, however, there was not much of that among the tens of thousands in Place du Canada. “I feel good about this,” said Ottawa marketing executive Harry Moll, 63, as he sat atop his 35-seat bicycle. “None of this may do any good, but at least it gave all of us a chance to do something to try and save the country.” Few among the milling throng he was watching would have disagreed with that.
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