In less than six months, Sudan will hold a referendum that experts say could produce a new country or spark a regional war. And as they prepare for the crucial vote, politicians from Africa's largest country are seeking lessons from Canada.

Eight members of President Omar al Bashir's ruling National Congress Party and three members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which governs the country's semi-autonomous south, visited Canada this week to learn how Ottawa conducts plebiscites.

Those two parties represent opposing sides of a now quiet civil war, which was fought mainly in the south of the country and claimed more than two million lives. (Another war in the western Darfur region has killed several hundred thousand more.)

Southern Sudan sits atop the country's vital oil resources, and followers of Christianity and traditional African faiths there have resisted attempts to impose Islamic customs and beliefs on them by the Muslim north.

A 2005 peace agreement helped quell decades of fighting between the two sides. Under its terms, Sudanese authorities must hold a referendum by Jan. 9, 2011, to determine whether the south will secede.

Ottawa hosted the Sudanese delegation as part of an offer of "technical support" for the referendum, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lisa Monette told in an email.

Over five days, the group stopped in Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa. They heard presentations from a number of organizations including Elections Canada.

Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto, said Elections Canada is often asked to provide advice on democratic processes abroad. Canada is seen as having "a lot of expertise in electoral administration," he said, and has participated in several hundred electoral missions overseas.

In the case of south Sudan, Ottawa hopes the delegation's visit will make the outcome of the pending referendum "more likely to be accepted by all parties involved, to produce legitimate outcomes, and thus avoid unnecessary violence," Monette said.

EJ Hogendoorn, the International Crisis Group's project director for the Horn of Africa, applauded Ottawa's offer to share its expertise on secession referendums (Quebec has held two votes on sovereignty).

"Any attempt to try to make this vote as transparent as possible -- meaning that the people believe the results are in fact the will of the voters -- the better it will be for stability in the country," Hogendoorn said by phone from Nairobi, Kenya.

Sudan was the largest recipient of Canada's humanitarian aid in 2008-2009. Ottawa has spent at least $760 million there over the past four years. That represents a "significant" financial footprint in the East African country, Hogendoorn said.

A few dozen members of the Canadian military are stationed across the south, the western region of Darfur and the northern capital of Khartoum as part of United Nations and African Union peacekeeping missions. Eighteen Canadian police officers are training local authorities, and troops deployed from nearby African states drive 105 armoured vehicles borrowed from the Canadian military.

About 60 countries are involved in humanitarian and security work in Sudan, under the auspices of the UN and the African Union. But Hogendoorn said the international community is still doing too little to help the country avoid another war.

"This is the largest threat to regional stability in Africa at the present time," Hogendoorn said. "And if you were to compare the assistance going to Sudan to the assistance that's gone to other war-torn countries, such as Bosnia and Cambodia, it's not nearly as much."

A months-old national election may hold clues about what to expect from the referendum. Bashir's National Congress Party won the April vote -- a process that election monitors from the Carter Center deemed "chaotic, non-transparent and vulnerable to electoral manipulation."

More recently, a July report by rights group Global Witness warned that Sudan remains "alarmingly unprepared" for the referendum. Government authorities have yet to pinpoint where the new country's borders would lie if the south opts for independence. No agreements have been reached on how to divide Sudan's debt or share its natural resources. Meanwhile the Sudanese armed forces and the Southern People's Liberation Army are said to be rearming.