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Guest Column

Let's Not Circle the Wagons and Shoot Inward on Softwood Lumber

By Bob Plecas


Lumber trade issues have existed between Canada and the United States for more than 100 years, and for nearly two decades softwood lumber has been the major irritant in the largest trading relationship in the world. For 15 of the past 18 years, the North American lumber market has been disrupted by actual and threatened countervailing duty litigation.

Against the threat of a fourth countervail case, the US-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement was negotiated. As we are now in the final year of that agreement, the United States and Canada again face a crossroads in softwood lumber trade.

The BC Lumber Trade Council's goal upon expiration of the Softwood Lumber Agreement is clear-softwood lumber trade between Canada and the United States should be free of artificial restraints, whether quotas or tariffs.

It is also our view that if the North American industry remains unable to sort out the differences, we will fall back on the litigious solutions of the past.

We believe that there is another route to free trade, one that would avoid the market disruption and uncertainty of countervail litigation. In our view, the Canadian and United States governments should be using the time remaining under the agreement to explore possible long-term solutions to a dispute that has proven intractable to date.

If our two governments can engage in a real and meaningful dialogue, perhaps some ideas may surface for a creative solution for achieving free trade that would preclude further litigation. In the meantime, the council will continue to prepare for another legal challenge and settle the issue in litigation, if need be. But before we leave the field to the lawyers, it seems worthwhile for the governments to assess whether a less disruptive path to free trade may be available.

The council firmly believes that the way ahead-which would pursue an interest-based approach to solving this long-outstanding problem-is clear. We need to take into account the legitimate long-term interests of the lumber industries on both sides of the border, and of the workers and communities that depend on them.

We need to consider the legitimate interests of our customers. And we need to consider environmental interests on both sides of the border.

In order to do this, we need to work from a common understanding of the issues and how the interests identified above are more aligned than is generally believed. We also need to clear up misunderstandings that have developed over the years.

On both sides of the border, our lumber industries share many common goals, objectives and challenges. Both countries need to focus on the development of a shared vision for the future of our renewable resource. We need to concentrate on the growth of our markets, and on satisfying the legitimate and increasing environmental consciousness of our customers.

We are fortunate to work in an industry that is based on a renewable resource. As the stewards of this resource, we must focus on our shared responsibilities and interests, most notably our environment, our shareholders, and our customers. Our attention must be turned from the cycle of reiterating and rebutting the shopworn and tired allegations of Canadian subsidies, to exploring opportunities for the development of a North American solution for softwood lumber trade.

Our countries are positioned at a time of unique opportunity with respect to this trade dispute. Elections in the US, in Canada, and in British Columbia all coincide closely with the expiry of the Softwood Lumber Agreement. In the US, a new president will have been in office 69 days when the agreement expires. Softwood lumber will be the first key trade issue faced by these newly mandated governments, and their commitment to its resolution will define the nature of this and other trading relationships for the next several years.

Canada and the United States are the best of friends as neighbours. As neighbours, we enjoy the largest trading relationship in the world and have a long tradition of mutual support on other international matters.

As neighbours, there is little advantage to be gained in circling the wagons and shooting inward. The way ahead is clearly through government to government discussions aimed at securing a free trade arrangement for lumber in North America.

Over the last year, the BC industry has worked hard to develop a consensus position. It has worked in close collaboration with the industry in other provinces covered by the agreement, and with the Free Trade Lumber Council, to attempt to reach a united industry position on how to proceed in this last year of the agreement.

These important discussions are proving fruitful and we in British Columbia are hopeful they will result in a Canadian industry consensus. We feel that a united Canadian industry, working collaboratively with its government, would be in a strong position to secure a free trade arrangement with the United States.

The BC industry believes that a litigious resolution will always be available, as it has been in the past. We firmly believe in talking about problems with your neighbour rather than suing him. Therefore, the council has asked our provincial and federal governments to open government to government discussions with the United States to determine what policy explanations or modifications would be necessary to guarantee unencumbered access to the US market.

Finally, the council feels that the best long term solution for all interests is a growing North American market for lumber. With committed political leadership, we look for these discussions to provide a solution for North American softwood lumber trade.

Bob Plecas, an experienced former senior civil servant in Victoria and a former Deputy Minister of Forests for BC, is president of the BC Lumber Trade Council. The council is a trade association that represents the interests of companies responsible for 95 per cent of softwood lumber production in British Columbia, as well as remanufacturers and wholesalers.


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