The Supreme Court of Canada issued a judicial opinion after the last referendum, basically saying that for the secession of Quebec to be legal, a clear majority must vote yes on a clear question. The Canadian government recently passed a federal law that says just that. It’s basically a licence for the federal government to dismiss or challenge any referendum result that passes the separatist’s criteria of success (50% + 1 vote yes on whatever question is proposed).
I think the most unlikely outcome of all is for Quebec to win a referendum and declare complete sovereignty and independence. If they did so, they would then be a country full of Canadian soldiers, federal buildings, federal roads, cash, and passport holders, which would put the new nation in a horrible position: either pay for all of it, or accept that most of the infrastructure in your country is owned and run by another nation. In addition to those costs, there would be the costs of developing their own money, embassies, trade agreements, etc. Furthermore, Quebec would lose all say in the administration of the Canadian dollar, so if they still used it they could be effectively and repeatedly shafted by the federal government. There would also be the issue of figuring out what to do with the three million citizens who want to remain Canadian, and hold passports or other documents to that effect: what do you do when 40% of your tax base says they don’t have to pay taxes because they’re citizens of another country and planning to move there?
The issue of the Cree in the north is also significant, since they hold ~20% of the land that happens to be the most resource rich. During the last referendum, they held their own referendum on whether to go with Quebec or stay with Canada: 95% voted for Canada. This puts a hardline stance on sovereignty in an even worse position, since they have no legal or moral basis for compelling the Cree to accept secession, and are faced with a choice to relinquish the Cree territory back to Canada, or brutally suppress any dissent by natives, who would certainly be supported by Canada and world opinion.
If separatists won a referendum that the federal government couldn’t dismiss (i.e., with 66% of the vote, as opposed to 50% +1), the more likely outcome is a series of negotiations in which the balance of power between the provinces and the federal government is shifted, eventually resulting in a new arrangement in which Quebec is outwardly still a part of Canada (uses Canadian money/financial institutions/diplomatic and trade ties/defense forces, etc.) and inwardly has greater administration over its own affairs.
Remember that the last referendum didn’t ask if Quebeckers wanted to declare their own sovereignty; it asked if Quebeckers wanted to pursue a new arrangement with the rest of Canada. Polls for both the yes and the no side showed that many who voted ‘yes’, did so believing that success would lead to something like the second scenario I outlined, and not the first. They believed Quebec would still have representatives in the Houses of Parliament, would still use Canadian money, and that they would retain Canadian citizenship. These ‘soft’ nationalists basically voted yes (and have repeatedly elected a separatist government) because they believed that a pro-sovereignty stance increased their stature and bargaining power at the federal level.
BTW, Jacque Parizeau’s embarassing gaffe in his speech following the referendum, in which he blamed the loss on “money and the ethnic vote”, was (according to an ethnic yes supporter I spoke to, who saw the text of the speech afterwards) a mistake he made by forgetting the next line: “next time, we’ll have to work harder to include them”. Parizeau was right: had the rich and the ethnic voters not voted ‘no’ almost unanimously, the separatists would have had a clear victory.
Never attribute to an -ism anything more easily explained by common, human stupidity.