In the controversy over Michael Ignatieff's putative lack of Canadian bona fides for having talked and written in the first person plural about being American, it is surprising that the apostles of continental integration, who have long been trying to erase the Canadian-American border, have not rushed to his defence.

After all, the surrender of federal and provincial powers brought about by the misnomer called “free trade” has contributed not just to Washington's growing control over Canadians' - and of course, Mexicans' - lives but to the ability of Canada's constitutionally empowered governments to govern.

We have a devastating economic crisis? Ottawa waits for Washington to take the lead.

The Americans close the border to Canadian beef when a mad cow is discovered in Alberta? Ottawa sends civil servants to talk with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, but the Canadian beef industry has to wait several years for satisfaction until a domestic dispute is played out in Washington, where the food-processing transnational corporations (which needed Canadian cattle) finally prevailed over the western American ranchers (who used the mad-cow excuse to invoke high import barriers so that their prices could be raised).

We have a crisis in the automobile industry? Ottawa has to wait for Washington to decide what the solution will be and then coughs up a disproportionate contribution to the bailout.

We have a global climate crisis? Ottawa denies its existence until Washington starts to act. As John Ibbitson made clear recently in The Globe, there is now nothing for the Canadian government to do in the face of the climate-warming crisis other than wait for the Obama administration and Congress to finalize their cap and trade plan, at which point the Canadian government will have to adopt it.

Although free trade gave it some legal weapons, Ottawa has been too timid to exploit them. When Canadian softwood-lumber exports were burdened with billions of dollars of anti-dumping and countervailing duties, Ottawa won most of the subsequent rulings of the North American free trade agreement's dispute-settlement panels. Washington should have reimbursed Canada the $5-billion of duties it had imposed, but, faced with its refusal to comply, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ultimately felt that it was better to capitulate and let half a billion dollars go to reward the U.S. lumber protectionists and another half billion for George W. Bush's political uses.

Citizens in all countries of the world have long been mesmerized by the bigger-than-life carryings-on in the U.S. - in Hollywood and on Wall Street as much as in Washington. The difference between the rest of the world and Canada is that, despite the substantial size of this country's economy and the huge role it plays in boosting U.S. economic wealth by supplying energy and raw materials, its market for American exports and its continual supply of trained workers, Canada has become more dependent on decisions made by U.S. politicians than ever.

Michael Ignatieff had a spectacularly successful career, reaching the stratosphere of the Anglo-American media elite with his weekly column in the London Observer, his BBC interview program, his articles in The New York Times and his human-rights centre at Harvard University. His elegant essays tended to raise hackles in academia, where his analysis was on occasion contested for its logical contradictions or analytical inadequacies. But they were broadly applauded for the acuity of their perceptions, and, on the issue of “Americanness,” he was putting his finger on something important.

Canadians (as are Mexicans) are indeed “Americans” in the sense that – more than in countries farther away – their lives are determined in many respects more by Hollywood, Wall Street and Washington than they are by their own governments' actions. They may not pay taxes directly to Uncle Sam or vote for members of the U.S. Congress and Senate, but their lives are largely determined by the U.S. government's actions.

Public intellectuals clarify issues in order to enlighten their publics. Sometimes, they may oversimplify or overdramatize an issue in order to make a point or get the attention they crave, but they struggle to tell the truth as they see it.

Those who enter the tortured world of Canadian politics play by different intellectual rules. For fear of being branded anti-American, aspiring federal or provincial politicians deny their political impotence in major public-policy fields by refusing to admit that they no longer hold many of the requisite levers of power.

Mr. Ignatieff should not risk jeopardizing his credibility by pretending not to have felt American. Rather, he should give content to his mellifluous rhetoric by explaining how he would reappropriate the regulatory levers that have either atrophied or been abandoned in trade agreements so that Ottawa, under his prime ministership, could actually deliver on the promises, such as an East-West energy corridor, which decades of North-South integration ultimately constitutionalized by NAFTA make all but impossible.

There is no shame in recognizing how much Canadians identify with the American dream. The challenge for Mr. Ignatieff - once he has indicated the Liberal Party's platform - is to show how he can reclaim enough governing capacity for Canada that, if elected prime minister, he would actually be able to implement these policies. Then the voters might give credence to his claim to true patriot love.

Stephen Clarkson, professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, is Senior Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is the author of the newly published Does North America Exist? Governing the Continent after NAFTA and 9/11.

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