Canadians believe their policy of economic nationalism has been given, as Marc Lalonde puts it, a ''bum rap.''
So, when some 11,000 central bankers, finance ministers, commercial bankers, and others showed up last week for the annual meetings here of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the federal government saw an opportunity to defend its controversial National Energy Program (NEP) and Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA). The government sponsored an ''information program'' which included a series of four poorly attended economic panels, including one on ''Economic Nationalism in Canada.'' And the personable Mr. Lalonde, then minister of energy, mines, and resources, met with a small group of American journalists - some representing critical United States publications - to explain Canada's case.
''There has been an extreme overreaction to Canadian policies,'' he held. ''A lot of criticism has been intemperate and lacked perspective.''
Since then Mr. Lalonde has been named minister of finance in a major shuffle of the Canadian Cabinet. There his powers of explanation and management will be stretched as Canada deals with 12.2 percent unemployment and continued high inflation.
With the economy in such poor shape, some Canadians have also been wondering whether the NEP and FIRA activities have discouraged foreign investment and job creation. Thus Mr. Lalonde may also have been speaking to his domestic constituency as well.
Mr. Lalonde's defense takes these lines:
1. Canada's nationalistic measures ''have been routine for decades in other industrialized countries.''
He maintains that ''the nature, scope, and implications of specific measures introduced in Canada have been distorted or blown out of all proportions.'' Canadian economic nationalism, he says, is ''a rather tame animal when compared to foreign members of the species, including US economic nationalism.''
As evidence, the Canadian government distributes a 72-page list of barriers to foreign investment in the US.
2. These nationalistic measures are not a major cause of Canada's economic ailments.
Mr. Lalonde notes that the foreign investment review agency, in existence since 1975, did not prevent Canada from growing faster than other industrial countries until just recently.
''Blaming the NEP (energy program) for everything has become a favorite sport for those who find it convenient to ignore the dramatic impact on the Canadian economy of the international recession, of high US interest rates, and of the volatility of exchange rates,'' he said. The NEP is designed to encourage Canadian ownership of oil and gas properties through special subsidies and other advantages not available to American-owned firms.
3. Canada's oil and gas industry, he admitted, has been facing difficulties, including the cancellation of some oil-sands or heavy-oil megaprojects. But the US oil and gas industry has not been immune to declining prices, with some oil-shale projects dropped.
In fact, Mr. Lalonde noted, a survey of eight major Canadian subsidiaries of US oil companies found that seven were doing better than their parent firms.
Indeed, he argued that Canada's oil policies are ''generous'' compared with those of many other nations. He expects the Canadian oil industry to enjoy a better year in 1983.
4. Canada's economic nationalism arises from its extraordinary dependence on foreign investment. Almost 29 percent of Canadian industry is foreign controlled , with over 45 percent of manufacturing run by foreign-owned firms. In the case of such important sectors as transportation equipment, chemicals, and electrical products the proportion exceeds 60 percent.
By comparison, only 2 percent of US industry is foreign-controlled. Of the 50 largest firms in Canada, 18 are foreign controlled; in the US, the comparative figure is two.
Nonetheless, Mr. Lalonde said, ''Canada, as a matter of national policy, continues to rely more heavily than most other industrialized countries on international investment to foster the development of its economy.''
However, Canada also finds that its foreign-owned companies don't always act to benefit Canada. ''There have been codes of multinational corporation behavior for 15 or 20 years, but they don't just get the message,'' he complained.
Thus the government set up FIRA to see that Canada benefited from new foreign investment. ''Except for its Australian counterpart, FIRA is the only 'one stop' integrated process in the world for reviewing foreign investment activities,'' said Mr. Lalonde. ''Most other countries have taken a diffuse approach. They have put in place a multiplicity of legislative provisions, regulations, and administrative procedures to prohibit, restrict, or otherwise control the activities of foreign investors on their territories.''
Mr. Lalonde admitted there was scope for improvement in the administration of FIRA. But he held that it is a superior review process than the diffuse approach.
Some 86 to 96 percent of direct investments reviewed by FIRA are approved. Those approved, however, may have had to alter their investment plans to include provision for more jobs, research and development, or Canadian stock participation. Some firms refuse to change their plans and do not invest in Canada.
''In the US, some Americans haven't recognized that Canada is a separate country,'' said Mr. Lalonde.