The recent reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has backed out of the annual North American leaders’ summit – aka the Three Amigos Summit – marks a low point in North American relations, perhaps even lower than the acrimonious days of Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon.

Ottawa claims the postponement isn’t a big deal since the date for the meeting was never officially scheduled. Funny, then, that the media in all three countries knew of the February date.

Of course, this is not the first time that a meeting of the three leaders has been postponed; none was held in 2010 and 2013. It has been reported that the cancellation in 2010, when it was Canada’s turn to host, was because the White House insisted that President Barack Obama simply could not visit Canada three times in one year. (Canada hosted the G-8 that year, and there had been a bi-lateral visit by Obama earlier.)

Summits get cancelled – except when they’re important – and this one, it appears, is not. What is also apparent, and actually more of an issue, is that the leaders have given up even trying to pretend otherwise.

In fairness, there are solid, domestic political reasons for the PM to postpone the meeting. He’s heading into an election; relations with the White House are low and relations with Los Piños even lower. Having Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto take turns pinning your arms while the other one punches you – in public, in Canada – is a show only the opposition parties would enjoy.

The North American chill

Along with the legion of foreign policy writers who are looking to add another chapter to their “Stephen Harper has destroyed Canada’s foreign policy” narrative, this is just a bit too much. As Kenny Rogers once sang, you have to know when to run.

Running from such a meeting may make sense for the prime minister, but not for the larger project that is North America. It also doesn’t help get movement on the multitude of other issues in Canada-U.S. relations and Canada-North America relations that would benefit to attention from the leaders. Many of the pressing Canada-U.S. issues have been shoved off the table by the Keystone XL pipeline squabble. Yes, Keystone may be the most important thing, but no, it is not everything.

The U.S. has a much different relationship with Mexico. Republican Congressman Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, stated recently that “U.S.-Mexico relations are so strong today that they don’t make much of a splash.

Contrast this chill among North American leaders with the new Pacific Alliance bloc of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Those leaders meet faithfully once a year in person when they can and when scheduling or other issues arise, they meet by video conference. There is an urgency and sense of purpose that is noticed at home and abroad, especially in Asia. They meet because it is important.

The same cannot be said for North America.

Brain dead and on life support

That the leaders of North America do not meet does not mean that the project of North American integration is clinically dead. The structure of integration is still there and it functions. The trilateral working group on harmonizing environmental standards for widget production still meets, as do premiers with governors, governors with gobernadoras, and gobernadoras with premiers.

The body lives, the organs still function but the higher intelligence, the setting of broader aspirations, the ‘vision thing’ – that is dead or at least in a coma.

So, brain dead but on life support. We will continue to muddle along. Which, as sad as that may be, is not the end of the world. And neither is it a small thing. Billions of dollars a day in trade will still flow, millions of jobs will continue and the longest non-militarized border in the world will stay that way.

Yet, as Asia continues to rise and strengthen, as other regional integration groups advance, at some point we’re going to have to revive the higher brain functions in North America. At a time when there is consensus that relations are at a low point, is counter-intuitively the time to begin building for bolder new ideas.

It’s not that no one has tried to do this in the past. The late Robert Pastor, considered the unofficial ‘dean’ of North America, before his passing last fall gave it one last try. Yet, what frustrated and defeated those with ambition for North America like Pastor, for the past decade has been that ‘things were working well enough.’ There is nothing like complacency and a full stomach to kill ambition. Maybe, just maybe we’re getting to the point where this is no longer the case.

Of the three countries in North America, Canada is arguably the one least equipped to contribute to the building of a new vision for North America. The country does not have even one centre for the study of North America, nor do we have much capacity for work on Mexico. The last true North American centre, the Alberta Institute for American Studies, closed several years ago.

That vacuum creates an opportunity for the West to step into the void and help lead the creation of a new vision. Someone is going to fill that vacuum. Why not an institution, or group of institutions, in western Canada?

By Carlo Dade, Director of the Centre for Trade & Investment Policy