I AM A Canadian working in Washington and though I have lived in the United States for 22 years, I have retained my Canadian citizenship because Canada is the country I love. But now, to my chagrin and dismay, Canada may be about to do itself in because of a complex constitutional crisis that the rest of the world has hardly noticed.

Canada is a land of vast, unspoiled spaces between its few but utterly modern and hospitable cities. Canadian society is, in many ways, exemplary: There is little crime, the poor and elderly are treated well and a generous basket of social services keeps almost everyone as healthy as modern medicine permits -- at virtually no charge. Only a "middle" power, Canada is not pressed by international responsibilities or ambitions; it has always inspired affection rather than patriotism or chauvinism. Above all, Canada is a cultural mosaic rather than a melting pot, a place where ethnic diversity and tolerance have been nurtured as a matter of long-standing tradition -- and government policy. That the country could flourish without a constitution for most of its 123-year history is ample testimony to the civility of its disparate people.

And yet my country is falling apart. It is grappling with the worst crisis in its history. The breakup of the nation is widely regarded as inevitable -- led by Quebec, Canada's largest French-speaking province and home to a quarter of her population. Gloom and bitterness pervade the country. Bombshell follows bombshell. A new poll reveals that, for the first time, a majority in Quebec favors independence from Canada. Last week, separation was endorsed by the federal minister of the environment, Lucien Bouchard, who was not only the leading French Canadian in the cabinet of Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney but his Quebec lieutenant and his political mentor from university days. In the cruelest blow so far, the premier of Nova Scotia has speculated publicly that his province's best option lies in joining the United States -- a stunning blow to those who favor Canadian federalism and unity.

Ironically, the root of the problem lies in the ethnic diversity that has always been Canada's pride. The immediate issue is the refusal of three of Canada's 10 provinces to ratify the 1987 "Meech Lake Accord," which grants long-sought "distinct society" status and unique powers to Quebec. Meech Lake's essential dilemma is that while ratificiation is the only foreseeable act that can keep Quebec within Canada, it may also quarantee the balkanization of Canada once Quebec assumes its special status. The deadline for ratification by all 10 provinces is June 23. In recent days, Mulroney has indicated he is working on a proposal to rescue the accord, but he has said he will call the 10 premiers to- gether only if there is a reasonable chance of success. With just a month left before the accord expires, chances seem slim. If June 23 passes without ratification, Quebec will probably vote to separate -- dividing Canada into an eastern zone of four provinces and a western zone of five. Eventual dismemberment of Canada would be all but certain. Legal arguments would ensue about how to divvy up the country. The show, many fear, is over.

The seeds for this seemingly sudden disaster were, in fact, sown in 1763. When the British finally defeated the French that year for control of New France -- a vast portion of North America that included today's Quebec -- they encouraged retention of the French language and culture as a means of pacifying the population. By 1867, when Quebec ("Lower Canada" to the British) and three English-speaking colonies formed the nation we now know as Canada, Quebec's French culture had been firmly established for more than two centuries.

Though Canadians speak and write in idealistic, even romantic, terms of their nation's dual heritage, trouble has long lurked just below the surface. In the early 1960s, Quebecers threw off a repressive government and began their "quiet revolution" toward an enhanced French Canadian identity. Along with it came a quest by some for provincial autonomy -- or at least recognition that Quebec was "different" from the English-speaking provinces and needed special powers. Quebecers also showed little enthusiasm for the British monarchy or the national flag with the British Union Jack in the upper left corner. Many English Canadians, in turn, regarded adoption of the new maple-leaf flag in 1964 -- after months of bitter debate -- as an attempt to appease Quebec.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Canadian governments tried to mend the country's increasingly tattered social fabric by promoting "unity in diversity." The country became officially bilingual, and new laws required that even cereal boxes be printed in both official languages. Civil servants were provided with crash courses in each other's language.

But the drive for an independent Quebec continued unabated. In the 1960s, terrorists from the Front for the Liberation of Quebec set off bombs in Montreal's wealthy, English-speaking suburbs. In 1970, Quebec separatists resorted to kidnappings and murder, triggering Canada's equivalent of martial law. In 1976, Quebec elected its first separatist government -- but voted against a form of independence called "sovereignty-association" in a bitter 1980 referendum. Polls showed that those opposing separation were fearful of the economic consequences; today's polls portray a Quebec confident it can survive on its own. But the most prickly thorn in English Canada's side was Quebec's adoption two years ago of laws that made Quebec a unilingual (French) province, with draconian provisions forbidding even public restaurant signs in anything but French. The laws seemed to taunt liberal English Canadians who believed in a bilingual and bicultural nation. Clearly Canada was a troubled land.

In 1966, Pierre Trudeau burst into the national spotlight. Two years later he became prime minister -- a visionary who would largely shape modern Canadian nationalism over the next 15 years. Trudeau was the hope of many Canadians for their country's future. The belief was almost universal that he, as a French Canadian with deep roots in Quebec's intellectual and labor movements, could resolve the dispute about language and cultural rights that had periodically rocked the otherwise peaceable nation for 100 years. He fervently believed that French Canadians should be "at home" in all parts of the country. If that were the case, he argued, no one part of the country (read Quebec) would ever need to secede to protect the rights of its citizens. Trudeau's commitment to bilingualism and biculturalism permeated the actions of his four administrations.

Trudeau's beliefs finally took form in Canada's first constitution, which was adopted in 1982 -- 115 years after the country was founded. The constitution set out federal and provincial responsibilities and established a charter of rights and freedoms, but it did not deal with the question of cultural and linguistic rights to Quebec's satisfaction. Nine of the provinces have ratified the constitution and Quebec has supported all but the cultural and linguistic "sticking point." Trudeau left office, leaving the "Quebec problem" to Mulroney and his Conservative government.

In 1987, Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers met at a fishing lodge on Meech Lake near Ottawa to tackle the impasse and, after an all-night session, thrashed out an agreement -- but one that was the antithesis of what Trudeau and his Liberals had fought so hard for all those years. It granted what recent Quebec governments have specifically demanded -- constitutional status as a "distinct society" within Canada -- and it gave Quebec the powers, previously held by the federal government, to protect the French language and culture in Canada.

Quebec has agreed to sign the accord, serving notice that it is the "least" it will accept "from Canada" as a price for staying in the country. But three other provinces have refused to accept it -- New Brunswick and Newfoundland in the east and Manitoba in the west -- and show no sign of changing their minds before June 23.

The three provinces are opposed in part because they share Trudeau's vision of a strong federal system and are loathe to grant special powers to any single province. To a lesser extent, New Brunswick and Manitoba also are fearful of losing the special rights and treatment granted their French-speaking communities under Trudeau's federalist program of bilingualism and biculturalism. This program guaranteed special rights for linguistic minorities whenever they exceeded a stated share of an area's population -- regardless of what province they lived in. Current wisdom is that if Quebec gets the Meech Lake accord's special linguistic and cultural powers as the sole protector of French Canadian culture, today's more limited measures will be eliminated in New Brunswick and Manitoba, despite their large French-speaking populations.

Even if the accord were ratified, the resulting new "federalism" would be a curious creature -- for Meech Lake is in truth an anti-federal and insidious compromise. Though it would keep Canada together (for the time being), federalists argue that Quebec would be allowed to usurp so many of the federal government's powers that it would cripple the Canadian confederation. Others are convinced that Meech Lake serves only to appease Quebec's separatists and thereby dooms the country to certain breakup -- if not now, then in the forseeable future. So while federalist leaders like Trudeau denounce Meech Lake, Mulroney -- who also considers himself a federalist -- scurries around in a frenzied quest for support of the constitutional "remedy" that he helped father. Meanwhile, the resurgent Quebec separatist movement holds its breath in silent glee at what Mulroney is doing for its cause.

Why is a nation of such promise giving up on itself? Simply put, Canada has run out of solutions, and the June 23 Meech Lake deadline seems to allow no further options. Lacking a strong federalist leader in Ottawa or in the provincial governments, Canada may well call it quits as a nation. Though the most recent Gallup poll reported that Mulroney had the support of only 17 percent of Canadians -- half of what Richard Nixon enjoyed when he resigned in disgrace -- voters can't do anything until the next federal election in two years. While Canada's parliament has the power to oust unpopular governments, Mulroney's Progressive Conservative Party still holds enough seats in the House of Commons that a move to replace his government remains unlikely. But more defections by Conservatives from Quebec -- there were three last week, including Bouchard -- could leave Mulroney heading a minority government vulnerable to ouster by a vote of no-confidence.

It is convenient, of course, to blame Mulroney for the country's current crisis, but other politicians including Trudeau must share the onus. They have boxed themselves in with bellicose statements and questionable promises to their supporters to the extent that, after beating the country into complete frustration, they may have no discernible way out.

The role of Trudeau is especially tragic. As a teenager in the 1960s and later, as an adult, I traveled repeatedly across the country, excitedly stepping on and off trains in Nova Scotia, Quebec, British Columbia. The whole country was mine. Like Pierre Trudeau, I based many of my beliefs about my country on the writings of French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. I believed that if we Canadians could get along in peace, despite our disparities, and if we Canadians could continually negotiate our political framework to satisfy society's changing needs, couldn't anybody? And everybody?

The passage of time makes those questions naive, yet it is only a decade since Pierre Trudeau campaigned across the country demanding the answers to just those questions. And, to the increasingly imperious Trudeau, the answer had to be a resounding "Yes!" or "Oui!" The aging statesman, once a radical labor organizer, champion of civil liberties and international vagabond, would settle for no less.

When Trudeau took office in 1968, he rode a crest of personal popularity the likes of which the country had never experienced. Unfortunately for Canada, Trudeau proved to be arrogant and high-handed. He ended up despised by most Canadians, including his fellow Liberals, and left the party in a penniless shambles. So Trudeau assured Mulroney's ascent to power. He thereby also assured the current constitutional mess, which, some say, may have grown out of Mulroney's desire to solidify conservative support in Quebec by accommodating its nationalist sentiment.

Yet the "Quebec problem" may have been misnamed from the beginning. Quebec has been willing to play by the rules, such as they are. It is not Quebec that is refusing to ratify the Meech Lake accord. Rather, a handful of odd factors are the real villains that are joining to doom the Canadian confederation.

First is the frustration of many who want to resolve the situation one way or another regardless of the consequences for Canadian nationhood; they are impatient with the processes of continuous negotiation that have served Canada well in the past and that might always be required to keep the country together. Second is the disastrous economic record of Brian Mulroney. Canada's economy is in such a mess -- and the public's mood is so sour -- that rational debate on a topic as complex and delicate as Meech Lake is impossible. Third is the thinly veiled racism by right-wing extremists, especially in parts of Ontario and the Canadian west, that has added poison to the debate.

It is tragically ironic that a country whose modern society has been built with tolerance and patience is now letting the darker side of its character determine its fate.

Martin W. G. King is the editor of an insurance industry magazine in Washington. He is a native of Victoria, British Columbia.