Voters in Quebec today defeated a referendum proposal for separation from Canada by the tightest of margins -- about 1 percentage point.

After a cliff-hanging night of vote counting, late returns from metropolitan Montreal, where nearly half of all Quebecers live, pushed the vote against separation to a bare majority of 50.6 percent on the simple yes or no ballot. Unofficial final returns reported by CBC TV and the Canadian Press news agency showed a difference of 53,000 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast.

The outcome relieved an anxious Canada, which had confronted the possibility of rupture only 10 days ago when public opinion polls in Quebec showed a powerful surge of support for separation. But the slim victory for keeping Quebec inside Canada did not settle the issue. Instead, the referendum bared divisions in the province and the country that could take years to heal.

The whisker-thin margin allowed Prime Minister Jean Chretien to survive the latest epic confrontation with his country's most intractable issue, but just barely. His widely disparaged performance in the referendum campaign to keep Quebec part of the Canadian confederation has damaged him politically, analysts say.

In the closing days of the campaign, with the prospect of defeat palpable, Chretien promised to make "the changes that are needed" to quell separatist sentiment. Now, the vote has committed him to identify these changes and deliver them against the certain opposition of conservative leaders in Canada's western provinces.

In a brief address to the nation after the vote, Chretien spoke of reconciliation. He said he heard the message from Quebec and pledged to work with Quebecers for change.

But the result will have repercussions in the restive province that will not comfort the rest of Canada. The size of the yes vote was nearly 9 percentage points higher than in the last such referendum in 1980 -- a sizable leap toward a majority -- and it will likely sharpen the frustration of its supporters and guarantee a regrouping by Quebec's separatist government for another plebiscite.

"The next time will be winning one," declared separatist leader Lucien Bouchard in a speech accepting the voters' decision, "and it could happen sooner than people think."

Both Bouchard and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau have said that they would respect a no vote as the legitimate expression of the people's will. But by building so impressively on their traditional support base of about 40 percent of the provincial electorate, separatists may be moved to try again in a few years.

In the referendum campaign, Parizeau memorably compared Quebec's demands to a dentist's drill that Canada can avoid only by granting Quebec its freedom; Bouchard surmised openly that a separatist defeat at the polls would only mean there would be another Canadian rendezvous with this issue.

What seems likely in any case is that Canada faces a long period of constitutional wrangling and national reconciliation. In Quebec, the great unknown is whether frustrated separatists in the French-speaking majority will make an issue of the demographics of their loss.

With English-speaking Quebecers and immigrants considered solid no voters, leading separatist voices occasionally have claimed that a narrow plebiscite defeat would mean the will of the French-speaking majority had been blocked by others. Such sentiments, seldom far from the surface in both political rhetoric and the comments of French Quebecers, have given separatists here a reputation for ethnic nationalism.

Indeed, Parizeau shocked some commentators on national television late tonight by remarking before cheering supporters that the ethnic and English-speaking vote had tipped the balance against the separatists.

The voting also revealed a city-country division, as strong support for separation in the largely French-speaking heartland was more than matched by pro-unity sentiment in metropolitan Montreal.

Only 15 years ago, Quebecers voted 60 percent to 40 percent against a softer version of the same question. But in a pattern that is characteristic of Quebec's deeply ambivalent political sentiments, a year later they reelected their revered separatist champion, Rene Levesque, as premier of Quebec. His Parti Quebecois was voted out of office in 1985, and the job of rebuilding the party fell to Parizeau, his onetime finance minister.

Parizeau rejected the compromising strain Levesque had represented in the separatist movement and argued for unadorned "sovereignty." Parizeau's cause got a boost in 1990 with the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, which would have given Quebec "distinct society" status within Canada. That apparent rejection by the rest of Canada drove support for separation to unprecedented levels in the polls.

Following a second constitutional debacle -- the nationwide rejection of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, which also would have granted Quebec special status -- the separatist cause began to build a head of steam. In 1993, in the elections that brought Chretien and the Liberal Party to power in Ottawa, Quebecers for the first time sent to the federal capital a large delegation of pro-separatist legislators.

The Bloc Quebecois, founded and led by Bouchard, has the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons, which makes it Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Many in English Canada find it treasonous that such a state of affairs should be allowed to exist, and never more so than now. The bloc will resume its case in the House on Tuesday.

Last year, Parizeau led the Parti Quebecois back to power in the Quebec National Assembly, the provincial legislature that has retained the name it had before Canadian confederation, and set the stage for today's referendum.

He had originally envisioned a "simple question" to put to Quebecers, suggesting variations on "Do you want to become a sovereign country?" But persistently unfavorable public reaction to such a stark formulation led him to capitulate in June to moderating pressures from Bouchard and their young ally, Mario Dumont. The pair persuaded Parizeau to attach to the question a second clause that held out to voters the promise of continued ties to the remains of Canada.

The even longer referendum question that Parizeau finally unveiled in September read: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

Chretien and pro-unity forces in and outside Quebec branded the question deliberately confusing and misleading in its suggestion to voters that they might retain their privileged association with Canada.

Chretien's handling of the referendum campaign will be a topic of much discussion in the coming weeks and months and has emerged as a formidable political liability.

The posture he adopted from the outset was the Canadian equivalent of the Rose Garden strategy -- that is, looking after the nation's business, commenting little on the unfolding events in Quebec and dismissing the possibility of a yes victory as habitually and effectively as the pollsters and pundits were doing. Just weeks ago in western Canada, he assured audiences in the West that there was "no problem" in Quebec.

Recognizing for the first time, along with most Canadians and Americans as well, that he might be faced with the previously unthinkable yes vote, Chretien last week dived into the fray with an appeal he hoped would be as passionate as Bouchard's.

In hastily scheduled rallies and a dramatic television address to the nation, the prime minister all but begged his fellow Quebecers to "think twice" before sundering the Canadian union and a way of life "that is the envy of the world." He was reported to have broken down in tears twice in a meeting of his Liberal Party caucus as they weighed the gravity of the situation in Quebec.

The immediate result of his appeal, and of the sudden separatist threat to national unity, was an outpouring of outward affection for Quebec from the rest of the country. More than 100,000 people, many of them English speaking and perhaps a third from outside the province, converged on Montreal Friday to tell Quebecers how much they cared for them and to implore them to give Canada one last chance. CAPTION: QUEBEC Quebec has a long history of debate over independence: 1759 Quebec City, capital of New France, falls to the British in famous battle on the Plains of Abraham. 1867 Canada, made up of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, granted independence from Britain. 1967 French President Charles de Gaulle shouts "Vive le Quebec Libre" from the balcony of Montreal City Hall, which becomes a rallying cry of Quebec nationalist sentiment. 1970 October Crisis: Radical separatist movement Front de Liberation du Quebec kidnaps British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte. Canadian troops sent to Quebec. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau imposes War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties. Laporte's body eventually found in trunk of a car, while Cross is released. 1976 Parti Quebecois -- running on a platform of sovereignty -- wins Quebec election for the first time. *1980 First referendum on whether Quebecers want to grant provincial government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty association with Canada rejected 60 percent to 40 percent. 1990 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's hopes of reconciling Quebec with Canada dashed as Meech Lake constitutional accord among provinces and federal government fails to win unanimous approval by the provinces. 1992 Another Mulroney attempt to give Quebec special constitutional guarantees, the Charlottetown Accord among provincial leaders and federal government, is rejected in national referendum by 57 percent to 43 percent. CAPTION: "No" supporters celebrate victory at their Montreal campaign headquarters. CAPTION: A "yes" supporter at campaign headquarters in Montreal looks dejected as the narrow margin of defeat for the separatist side on Quebec's referendum on sovereignty becomes clear.