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As the election results rolled in on the night of Oct. 30, 1972, Pierre Trudeau sat with his staff in a downtown Ottawa hotel suite, telephoning one victorious candidate after another to offer congratulations.

First came the tallies from Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals did so-so.

Then came the huge tidal wave of Quebec votes, and with it a blooming confidence in the Prime Minister's inner circle that a second majority Trudeau government was on the way.

Then the Ontario results came in, and everyone watched in shock as the electoral map switched abruptly from Liberal red to Tory blue.

Mr. Trudeau abandoned the congratulatory calls -- and his advisers, absorbing the reality that the election was going to be very, very close, began speculating on what their leader should do if Canadians gave the Liberals fewer votes or fewer seats than Robert Stanfield's Conservatives.

As Timothy Porteous, Mr. Trudeau's executive assistant at the time, recalled yesterday, the tenor of the conversation was that Quebec separatists posed such a threat to national political stability that Mr. Trudeau had to hold on to office because he could deal with Quebec more effectively than Mr. Stanfield.

It was, in fact, a curious reverse mirror image to today -- with the Liberals and Conservatives, as before, heading pretty much neck and neck to the election finish-line but with the Liberals likely to be trounced in Quebec by a separatist party.

"It was always speculative talk," Mr. Porteous said.

"Mr. Trudeau didn't enter into the conversation. Throughout the evening, he was holding his cards close to his chest. But it [Quebec]was very, very present in our minds. It was very serious," he said.

"It was the potential end of the country."

Around 11 p.m., with the results in from British Columbia but the final outcome still unknown, Mr. Trudeau sent senior aide Jim Davey to fetch Jerry Yanover, who was watching the returns in another room in the hotel.

Mr. Yanover, the government's parliamentary expert, was legislative assistant to Liberal House Leader Allan MacEachen.

Mr. Trudeau wanted to know what Mr. Yanover yesterday termed his "academic" options.

"I had the distinct impression he had made up his mind," Mr. Yanover said yesterday.

"Every time I said something to the effect that he might turn things over [to the Conservatives] he was shaking his head."

And, as history has recorded, when Mr. Trudeau met reporters at the end of the long, suspenseful night, he plucked one of his favourite quotes from the prose-poem Desiderata -- "Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" -- but gave no hint of his intentions.

Meanwhile in Halifax, Mr. Stanfield and his advisers were as shocked as the Liberals.

"No one gave us a ghost of a chance of winning," said Toronto lawyer Graham Scott, at the time Mr. Stanfield's executive assistant. "Even our own polls didn't capture the magnitude of what was happening."

With votes still being counted, and recounted -- as they would be for several days -- Mr. Scott spent a frantic next day bringing together the party's key advisers to weigh what Mr. Stanfield should do.

He said, "Certainly it was an option [for the Conservatives to try to govern]if we could find an option that might work." Which they couldn't. The NDP quickly made clear it would support a Liberal, but not a Conservative, minority government.

When Mr. Trudeau finally announced he would continue to govern, the Liberals had 109 seats to the Conservatives' 107 and a three-percentage-point advantage in the popular vote.

But it wouldn't have mattered if he were behind, said Gordon Robertson, at the time clerk of the Privy Council, the government's top civil servant.

Mr. Trudeau, even with fewer seats and fewer votes than the Conservatives, would have been on solid constitutional ground if he had tried to continue governing, he said, and no subsequent convention has altered that constitutional authority.