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A Quebec flag flaps in the sky during the Moulin a Parole, a 24-hour long series of public readings, on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, in this September 13, 2009, file photo. Canadian politicians who almost saw their country torn apart by an independence referendum in 1995 say pro-union British leaders have been slow to learn lessons from that campaign.MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

There was muted relief in Ottawa that Scotland voted No to independence, and a sense of quiet satisfaction from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. But federalist politicians dodged a bigger bullet than they realize.

Just as many Canadians seem to be embracing the idea that Quebec's sovereignty movement is in near-terminal decline, a Yes vote would have given it a touch of timely inspiration and a practical example in breaking up a country. Perhaps it's worth learning from what didn't happen.

In our nation's capital, the political class apparently saw little connection. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, speaking for the federal government, issued a statement that treated this as a distant matter in a foreign land.

There was no mention of a Scottish analogy to Quebec, let alone concern separation there might have had an impact here.

Hmm. That's odd. Scotland's referendum campaign did feel familiar. There was an over-confident PM who took victory for granted, warnings secession is risky, a surge of nationalist emotion, a last-minute offer of more powers, and recoil to the status quo. There's no connection?

Quebeckers weren't all hanging on every twist in Scotland, nor will they reflexively do as Scots do.

But this is a moment when Quebec sovereigntists are struggling against a sense of futility, and that's weakening their institutions.

A Yes vote in another affluent Western country might well have convinced some discouraged sovereigntists it can happen here. And though Pierre Karl Péladeau hasn't proven a master strategist, the Parti Québécois MNA was right when he said a Yes in Scotland would help combat the sense that sovereignty is an outmoded cause. There'd have been a little contagious emotion, too.

More dangerous for Canadian federalists, however, is that a Scottish Yes vote might have weakened the weapon that's been used for countering separatist passion.

In both Quebec and Scotland, the heady nationalist emotions of the Yes campaign were fought with the No side's warning of danger: It's really risky, the economy will crash, the seceding state will be impotent, and nothing's guaranteed. "It's not worth the risk," Scotland's Better Together campaign warned. Jean Charest, a formidable No campaigner in the 1995 Quebec referendum, warned a Yes meant plunging into a "trou noir" – a black hole.

But if a post-Yes Scotland were preparing to negotiate secession right now, it would be offering a blueprint for how it's done. Anything short of calamity could be an example to argue Quebec secession is feasible. Scotland would probably have an easier time: It has borders from before union, and a good chance it could eventually join the European Union, which offers institutions, a trade bloc and perhaps a currency union.

None of that happened, of course. It's the realm of the counter-factual. The Brits can apply or misapply lessons from Canada as they offer to devolve powers.

But maybe Canadian federalists should learn lessons, since they've been taken by surprise before.

There is a potent emotional draw to nationalism and calls for independence. The old tactic to counter it, warning of risk, has worked, too. But more than a few Scots were turned off by No-campaign negativity. One thing that stemmed the tide was former prime minister Gordon Brown's passionate appeals about the bonds between Scotland and the United Kingdom. That, after all, is the emotional response to emotional nationalist calls for independence: that you can have your nation and keep your country, too. That's the obvious logical argument for a federation like Canada. It's better to start working on that strategy now, when the issue seems far away.