AS A sixth-generation Canadian, born in Quebec Province, I had to see for myself what the recent referendum campaign was like. So I went back to Quebec and drove north from Quebec City through the little towns that dot the coast of the St. Lawrence as far north as the Saguenay River, talking with as many people as I could.
The campaign was in its closing days, with the Parti Quebecois pushing hard for a Oui vote that would give its leader, Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, a mandate to negotiate sovereignty for the province. The Oui vote that wold give its leader, Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, a mandate to negotiate sovereignty for the province. The ouis fell far short, but I found feelings so intense on both sides that it will take years for the wounds to heal.
I found people who refused to talk to a visitor about the campaign. I found that almost all who agreed to talk to me did so on condition their names not be used. Many, especially the elderly, feared reprisals if they were identified.
"I have my food, a few pennies, tobacco and some whiskey," a man in his seventies explained. "Why get anybody mad and lose what I have?"
"Levesque is doing what he feels is best for Quebec, but he has worked the young people into a frenzy in support of his cause," said a woman in her seventies as she rocked on the front porch of her home facing the St. Lawrence at Ile d'Orleans. "It is remiiscent of Hitler's youth rallies."
Older citizens fear violence, she continued. "I know many elders who will not go out and vote for fear the young toughs who are preaching Parti Quebecois for all."
In Limoilou, a Quebec City suburb, a 64-year-old woman told of being approached on her way home from shopping by a gang of youths who warned her to vote oui or have her head knocked from her shoulders. That night, she said, her home was plastered with oui stickers.
In Levis, a Non supporter told police a young man had rushed up to his car at a traffic signal and fired a handgun pointblank at his wife's head.
The gun was loaded with blanks, but the woman almost went into shock.
In the same river twon, a group of Levesque campaigners told of being jumped and beaten by Non supporters as they solicited votes from motorists awaiting a ferry.
My closest brush with violence came at a restaurant in Ste. Simeon, another ferry port. As I talked with the waitress, a group of youths formed a circle around my counter stool to listen. Finally the oldest, about 18, challenged me: Who was I? What was I doing in Ste. Simeon? Why was I asking so many questions? Did I plan to vote Oui or Non ?
I explained that I worked for a newspaper, that I was there as a neutral observer, that although my roots were Canadian I was a naturalized American citizen living in Virginia. The tension eased, and the group began to tell me how strongly they belived in Levesque's positions. Canada's government and economy are controlled by the English-speaking, one youth declared. "They have used the Quebecois as slaves long enough."
A dairy worker in Limoilou defended the Oui campaigners' rough tactics. Someone, he said, must force the lazy voters out to the polls.And he contrasted Levesque with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau speaks French but lives in luxury like an English Canadian, he said. "Rene lives like we do, with us and for us. He is one of us," he declared as his fellow workers applauded.
"What's the difference in how we vote?" said the prosperous owner of a gas station in La Malbaie. "Quebecers are used to being kicked around. We'll live with whatever happens. The vote won't make any difference in my life.I'm 65 and have seen many new faces promise you the world but give you nothing. I'll continue working from 6 a.m. until I close and die with grease under my fingernails. I'll vote Non ."
His 19-year-old son saw much more at stake."The Ouis are crazy," he said. "They don't know when they are well off. If the Ouis win I'm going to go back to Virginia with you and work. It's bad enough now, but Rene is making conditions worse, and if he wins, watch out!"
One of the few Quebececers who agreed to be identified was Capt. Roland Gagne, retired from the Canadian Steamship Lines and now a museum owner and collector of ycanadian folk art in Pointe au Pic. He predicted the referendum outcome right on the button when he told a group of listeners, "The Nons will win, but the Ouis will take 40 percent of the vote . . . and consider that a major victory."
As long as Quebec has the St. Lawrence River," Capt. Gagne continued, "it has the strength to bargain with the rest of Canada. The St. Lawrence is the doorway to and from Europe, and Canada knows that Quebec controls the river."
A handsome young postal worker in Pointe au Pic said that many men he knew wanted to vote Oui but their wives would vote Non . The wives fear for the economy, he said,. They have to manage the house and pay the bills. They care about today, not the future, separation or equal rights.
"Me, I'll vote Oui , but pay for it when I get home. Then again, I might vote Non , just to keep the house peaceful. I think you'll find a great many men who claim they will vote Oui will change their vote when the curtain is drawn. Most would rather face Rene than an irate wife."
Not all husbands and wives hid their differences, however. In Limouilou, a sign hung from a front porch proclaimed: "Marcel, Oui ; Marie, Non ."