Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for South Okanagan—West Kootenay.
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the friends and family of Jim Prentice. He was a respected parliamentarian, and my heart goes out to all of my colleagues who are mourning his tragic passing today.
Today's motion is timely, and I am glad my Conservative colleague from Battlefords—Lloydminster has brought it forward for debate. The motion urges the government to take all necessary steps to prevent a trade war with the United States over softwood lumber exports.
I absolutely support the motion. For the many thousands of Canadians whose livelihoods depend on this important industry, it is imperative that Canada secures a fair deal with the United States.
Softwood lumber is a vital part of Canada's forestry sector. For many rural communities, it is the backbone of their economy. According to Canada's labour force survey, in 2015, the forest industry accounted for 260,000 direct and indirect jobs, compared to just over 400,000 jobs in 2003. Hundreds of sawmills across Canada have been shuttered, taking with them high quality, well-paid jobs, the kind of jobs on which families and communities depend.
Today, the softwood lumber industry is on the verge of more job losses. With the expiry of the 2006 SLA, producers are bracing for more U.S. tariffs, which will further devastate an industry has has already been hard hit by the long-standing dispute with the U.S., as well as factors like the recent recession, the crash of the U.S. housing market, and domestic issues like the spread of the pine beetle across British Columbian forests.
Canadians producers and workers are hoping that a new SLA will bring fairness and predictability.
The Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute first began in 1982. For nearly 35 years, the American industry has argued that Canadian producers benefit from subsidization, a claim that has been defeated time and time again.
Over the years, there have been several managed trade agreements and upon their expiration, more duties slapped on Canadian exports to the U.S. and more costly litigation. Canada has spent in the ballpark of $100 million in legal fees to defend our position.
After the previous agreement expired in 2001, the U.S. levied $5.4 billion in duties on Canadian imports, money that should have stayed in the pockets of Canadians. It was the beginning of a decade of massive job loss in the Canadian industry.
Soon after the Conservatives were elected in early 2006, they quickly negotiated a new agreement with little to no consultation with Canadian stakeholders. The result was a very controversial agreement that many argued represented a sellout of Canadian interests. For starters, it was based on the falsehood that Canada's industry was subsidized, which tribunal after tribunal has said is not the case. This set a terrible precedent that the rules of trade did not apply.
The agreement provided an option for Canadian regions of an export tax or a quota with an export tax at a lower rate. It took $50 million from Canadian industry to create a binding dispute settlement system where the U.S. was able to bring more actions against Canada. Perhaps most egregiously, the agreement allowed the U.S. to keep $1 billion of the duties it illegally levied on Canadian producers.
At the time, BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst, Stephen Atkinson, said, “Why would you give 22 per cent to your competition?...This money belongs to the companies and their shareholders, and the Canadian government is giving it away.”
Canadians were furious with the 2006 SLA. When the Conservatives brought it to Parliament in the form of Bill C-24, the NDP argued vehemently against the agreement. When we look back at this agreement, it is fair to say that the Conservatives caved to American interests. Today, it is imperative that the Liberals do not do the same.
As we know, the 2006 agreement was renewed in 2012 and expired last October. The Liberals love to blame the Conservatives for failing to initiate negotiations on a new agreement. It would seem the Conservatives made zero effort to work on the issue before the election. However, the current government must shoulder the responsibility for its role in failing to get a new deal done in time. For months, the government has hinted at breakthroughs that have never materialized.
In March, the Prime Minister boasted, “I'm confident that we are on a track towards resolving this irritant in the coming weeks and months.” That is from the CBC. The fact is that the Liberals broke their own commitment and failed to get a deal done before time ran out.
Beyond softwood specifically, the government does not seem to have a plan for the forestry sector. The federal budget contained no vision for supporting this important industry, which provides jobs right across Canada. It also failed to renew funding for the forest innovation program, which expired earlier this year.
The international trade committee undertook a brief study of softwood lumber earlier this spring, given that the expiry of the standstill clause was fast approaching. Over the course of two meetings, we heard from witnesses from British Columbia, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada. We heard a lot of frustrations about how Canada had gotten to the place it was at now. The 2006 SLA was a bad deal and the Conservatives did a poor job of negotiating it.
While many concede that another managed trade deal is better than more costly litigation, there is something inherently unfair about the fact that despite continued findings that Canada is not in the wrong, we continue to negotiate agreements that are clearly in the interests of U.S. industry. Many witnesses expressed a desire to see Canada and the U.S. reach a negotiated settlement, one that would work for all our regions. However, I also heard very clearly that people did not want another bad deal. Quebec, for example, has made a lot of changes in its forestry practices and any new agreement must recognize these and other regional differences. A one-size-fits-all solution simply will not do.
One important voice we did not get to hear from at committee was labour. The United Steelworkers, which represents some 40,000 forestry workers, has laid out several requirements for what it would like to see happen now that the 2006 SLA has expired.
It wants the creation of provincial forest community restoration fund. These funds would be invested in workers, forest-dependent communities, and forest health. It wants fair access to the U.S. lumber market and discourages a new quota system. It also wants a guarantee that Canadian producers will have the same access to the U.S. market that other countries will enjoy.
I appreciate the perspective of the United Steelworkers because it represents the workers' point of view. For workers, these three things would help give them greater job security and strengthen, instead of weaken, the industry.
The committee's final report made five recommendations to the government, including that it get a deal done that would serve Canadian interests, that it consult with big and small producers, and that any new deal respect regional differences. The committee submitted its report to the House last spring, but as the summer went on, we continued hearing worry and concern over the lack of progress on the government's part. In August, opposition committee members, including myself, pushed for a summer meeting to get an update from the department.
We also called on the government to broaden its consultations and convene a round table of stakeholders that had been excluded in the past. The Liberals rejected this proposal and, quite shockingly, called the whole meeting a waste of time.
In just a few short months, Canadian producers expect to be hit with U.S. tariffs of around 25%. Mills will be shut down right across Canada. Thousands of jobs will be lost. It is extremely important that the government gets this deal done right and gets it done fast. I hope the government understands the gravity of what these job losses will mean in our communities: thousands of people with no jobs to go to, no more paycheques to bring home, and families worried about how to pay the rent or make the next mortgage payment.
I am from southwestern Ontario and people in Essex know what it is like to lose a lot of jobs in one sector. It is tough and people are resilient, but it is very difficult for families and communities to work through these types of events. I urge the government to act in the interests of those whose jobs are on the line. That means getting the deal right and working collaboratively with the communities that will be impacted by another round of duties.
If the Liberal government is serious about holding out for a good deal, instead of signing a bad one tomorrow, then it owes Canadians more transparency and openness about how it will help Canada's industry weather this impending trade storm. Some in the industry want the government to provide loan guarantees to help them deal with a new round of U.S. duties. If this prevents sawmills from closing and jobs from being lost, then it is imperative that the government provide this support. Canadians deserve answers from the government, not more empty promises and hollow words about meetings and consultations.
The New Democratic Party supports this motion and urges the government to make a new agreement that is in the best interests of Canadians a top priority.