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Nearly five million ballots that almost tore up a country are headed to the shredder, ending a 12-year legal saga born in the turbulent wake of the Quebec referendum.

A judge gave Quebec's elections chief the green light to destroy the warehoused ballots yesterday, dashing the hopes of federalists who believed they could unlock the secrets of possible vote-rigging in the 1995 referendum.

To most of Quebec, the ballots are long-forgotten relics of a distant and painful political battle. But to others, they're historic pieces of evidence.

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The focus is on 86,501 ballots that were were marked improperly and never counted in the outcome, a No victory of 50.6 per cent.

The high rate of rejection in certain federalist ridings led the anglophone-rights group Alliance Quebec to seek the preservation of the ballots.

It hoped to find out whether a calculated effort reached into the upper tiers of the sovereigntist Yes organization to thwart federalist No voters.

"This is not about the past; it's about the future," lawyer Michael Bergman, who has been fighting the case, said in an interview. "These are not just pieces of paper. They're forensic instruments."

Mr. Bergman admitted that the ballots, almost all of which he believes were No votes, would not have changed the outcome of the referendum, although they may have driven the No side's real margin of victory to as high as 54 per cent.

Still, he believes they contained clues that could show "the extent and at what level of authority" a Yes-side plot reached. He favoured handing the ballots to a university or library.

"It's to assure that any future process is open, transparent and legitimate," Mr. Bergman said.

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That plan was dashed in a ruling by Superior Court Justice Roger Baker. He granted a petition by Chief Electoral Officer Marcel Blanchet to dismiss Alliance Quebec's lawsuit, effectively sending 4.8 million ballots to the dustbin.

While the "overtones" of the suit were significant because they dealt with the possible breakup of the country, Judge Baker said he was ruling on a matter of procedure.

"Courts are not political forums. Courts are not here to make statements," he said from the bench.

"This is not 1995 ... this is not to determine whether Quebec is staying or not in Canada," he said. The matter before him boiled down to "a procedural entanglement."

He said 13 years had elapsed since the referendum, a "potentially cataclysmic" event in Canada, and "13 years is too long" to deal with the legal request.

Lawyers for the Chief Electoral Officer said the Quebec elections law didn't permit them to make the ballots publicly accessible.

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The ballots are preserved in a warehouse in Quebec City at a cost of $12,000 a year.

A spokeswoman said Mr. Blanchet would wait for the 30-day appeals process to elapse before destroying the ballots. Held in sealed boxes, they would eventually be shredded and the paper recycled.

Mr. Bergman said he is considering an appeal, but acknowledged yesterday's ruling was the end of "a long and winding" battle. The ballots have been at the heart of multiple court fights and inquiries.

In an investigation, former chief justice Alan Gold of Quebec Superior Court concluded in 1996 that two Yes committee members and 29 deputy returning officers had rejected an unusually high number of No ballots "in a patently unreasonable manner."

Mr. Bergman says yesterday's ruling doesn't put the matter to rest.

"Perhaps now the forensic evidence will be lost, shredded into landfill or incinerated at some point no doubt," he told reporters, "but the controversy remains very much alive."

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