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Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. (Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

(Randy Quan For The Globe and Mail)

Elizabeth Renzetti

Ignatieff? Ted Cruz? Neil Young? We're confused about who's Canadian Add to ...

It’s getting so you can’t tell who is Canadian any more and who isn’t. Some leave the country for decades and remain national treasures. Others return from abroad and find the doughnut stamp in their passport cancelled. I was even worrying about myself the other day – I’ve spent almost half my adult life abroad – until I realized that I’d apologized to three people and one telephone pole and it wasn’t even noon. Phew! Credentials re-established.

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I feel sorry for Ted Cruz. The fact that the Texas Senator was born in Calgary might keep him from a presidential run, which is the best evidence yet that the universe has a sense of humour: He has spent months trying to distance himself from the taint of his Canadian birth, clearly worried that it makes him redder than a Digby lobster.

But anyone who heard his anti-Obamacare filibuster this week in the U.S. Senate will know there’s nothing Canadian about him: He spoke for 21 hours without worrying that he was hogging the microphone – or mentioning that he was going out for a coffee and would anyone else like anything? He made reference to Star Wars and not The Starlost, an infinitely superior Canadian series that has only been overshadowed in an act of cultural imperialism.

The main indication that Mr. Cruz isn’t Canadian is that he’s happy to have the streets filled with the halt, the broken and the uninsured, a bit like The Walking Dead, only less fictional and with more guns. He doesn’t want Canada, and I’m pretty sure we don’t want him back, either.

Much like the country didn’t want Michael Ignatieff back. I was living overseas when Mr. Ignatieff was the leader of the Liberal Party and was being flogged by the Conservatives for his temerity to stray from the country of his birth. Mr. Ignatieff’s new memoir, Fire and Ashes, is filled with hurt and genuine puzzlement over the success of the Conservatives’ attack ads against him, which intoned: “Michael Ignatieff. Just Visiting” and “He didn’t come back for you.” I always thought he should have responded, “Actually, I’m just back for the dry cleaning I left 30 years ago,” which shows why I am not, and never will be, a prosperous political operative.

Wisely in the “more in sorrow than anger” mode, Mr. Ignatieff writes that he thought the electorate would see past these shoddy, cynical tricks. You can almost hear him crumpling when his colleague Scott Brison says that he keeps running into voters who think the party leader is American.

I’m still confused by the whole matter. Whatever Mr. Ignatieff’s other strengths and weaknesses, shouldn’t we, as a country, have been pleased that he tried for the best education possible abroad and then brought those skills back home? Are we still so parochial that everyone who leaves is a traitor to the national identity?

The trick to keeping your national icon status seems to be: Go away and stay away. Then, in the manner of spurned lovers, we will hold torches for you and carve your name in our sidewalks to remember that you, blazing celebrity, once went to primary school in this country (I direct you to look at the inductees of Canada’s Walk of Fame, who are more likely to live in Beverly Hills than Moose Jaw).

James Cameron, who left Niagara Falls, Ont., 40 years ago was given an honorary doctorate from Carleton University for his “distinguished career as a Canadian filmmaker.” If James Cameron is a Canadian filmmaker then I’m a Latvian truck mechanic. Unless Terminator 2 is really a metaphor for the single-payer health-care system, and I failed to notice it through the rain of eyeballs.

We cling to our idols, even if we’ve lost them to countries where they’re having very nice lives (although they may watch hockey on satellite TV or occasionally buy an island in Cape Breton). We sit up and take notice when Neil Young, American taxpayer, makes an astute, if hyperbolic, criticism of the Alberta oil sands; he will always be a Canadian hero, no matter how long he’s been away. Likewise Joni Mitchell, who remembers Canada when she’s being given an award or wants the city of Saskatoon to return her personal belongings. The Shania Twain Centre just shut down in Timmins, Ont., perhaps because the actual Shania Twain is located thousands of kilometres away in Las Vegas. Oddly, none of them is viewed as less Canadian for seeking their fortune elsewhere. Even if they don’t live here, pay taxes here or engage culturally with the issues of the day – I’m waiting for Shania’s new hit, Omnibus Crime Bill’s Breakin’ My Heart – we cling to them the way we cling to the lost, first loves who forged our identities then left us in the dust.

I’m not criticizing anyone who moves away or comes back; I’ve done both. I’m just wondering what criteria we use to judge whether someone remains suitably “Canadian” – and how we decide who gets the open arms and who the cold shoulder.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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