Spending a week here trying to comprehend the lofty thoughts of high-minded editorial writers reinforced positive perceptions about our neighbor to the north - and concerns about its demise.

First, the place really is lovely. Risk of sweeping generalizations aside, this recent bivouac affirmed what six or seven previous forays into Canada had revealed: It is remarkably well-endowed geographically, and its 30 million inhabitants have made maintenance a top priority.Oh, Canada!

Aside from its vast, naturally green open spaces and waterways, much of its native feel and flora - in sizable cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal - has been preserved through wise foresight and thoughtful planning. Huge parks and miles of networked pedestrian/cycling paths are commonplace. Extensive use of mass transit and high-density housing permit shared enjoyment of huge tracts of open space in urban environs.

This semi-socialized enlightenment offers sensory and aesthetic appeal to those of us from regions where laissez-faire planning and zoning is the norm. There are very livable alternatives to urban sprawl.

Second, Canada is not as vanilla as perceived - half-gallon of delectable Snelgrove Canadian Vanilla in our freezer aside. Though national capital Ottawa (Ottawhere?) is not nearly as diverse as, say, Toronto - and though Canada's prairie and western provinces are relatively homogenous - its entirety offers a dazzling tapestry of cultures and ethnicity. From its native groups to a wide array of immigrants welcomed by open-armed public policy, Canada is a beautiful nation of color and contrast that may yet unravel due to excessive tolerance of Quebec's Francophones.

Third, all Canadians do not pack hockey sticks, though in Ottawa, thousands skate to work in the heart of winter on the frozen Rideau Canal. All hockey players are not brawlers. That aspect of the game is probably emphasized more in America than "up north," where exceptional skating is recognized and rewarded with respect.

Fourth, Parliament is every bit as entertaining and cantankerous as Washington or the Utah Legislature, and the accents are more endearing. Watching Prime Minister Jean Chretien being bounced around during a question period in the House of Commons conjures up images of Clinton vs. Congress or Gov. Mike Leavitt mixing it up with legislators. Only theirs is nose-to-nose, with a full gallery.

Fifth, Christmas shopping in Canada is superb. Its dollar packs two-thirds the value of ours, and a good share of sales tax is refunded to non-residents.

Sixth, violent crime rates are far below those in the United States - as is the rate of gun ownership. Coincidence, perhaps? Or maybe their aggression is released in all of those hockey fights?

Yet these and many more positives - including an overall quality of life rated tops in the world - are threatened by the ever-looming threat of secession by Quebec. While our concept of states' rights is one thing, Canada's 10 provinces - especially Quebec - have taken it to extremes. A weak, sometimes bumbling, federal government has conceded so many points to Francophones that the French have bags packed while they dictate terms of an inevitable divorce decree.

Canada's Supreme Court recently ruled that Quebec's unilateral secession would be illegal but that the federation is obligated to negotiate terms of independence if the province votes to separate in a "clearly worded referendum." Quebec leader Lucien Bouchard and his separatist Parti Quebecois government refused to participate in the case on the grounds the court had no business interfering in the democratic rights of Quebeckers.

The party sends representatives to Parliament with the principal purpose of breaking up the country. In Quebec, if the French words on business signs are not at least twice as big as the English ones, you're in trouble. Imagine American Southerners' attitude toward "yankees" in 1860, and you get the picture - a potentially tragic one.

Such a breakup is inevitable, however, in the minds of many. The last referendum concerning separation, in October 1995, was defeated by less than 1 percent. Quebec is polarized over the issue, but the momentum toward separation grows as many Anglophones leave the province and as businesses yank their interests due to the uncertainty. Prognostications concerning post-breakup Canada and Quebec are not healthy economically, politically and socially.

So here sits an incredibly successful federation, our largest trading partner and unfailing ally, on the verge of implosion. How sad for us and them.

Uh-oh, Canada! It would be a shame if the massive nation is divided into bite-sized bits.

Such a collapse could leave the maritimes to ally with Maine, Ontario to disband, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to merge with North Dakota, Alberta and Montana to unite under Freeman rule as an independent nation, and British Columbia to be reinstated as a colony of the crown. Quebec would proceed on its merry way as a minuscule, inconsequential country with informal ties to France and disdain for anything English.

It would all be a tragic reminder of where extreme views of provincial (states') rights, with politically hyped ethnic and regional differences, can lead: destruction of a nation as well-ordered and civil as Canada. It would be heartbreaking. Canadian vanilla would never taste the same.