Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, committee, for this invitation today to appear before your committee to contribute to your discussions on Bill C-50.
By way of brief introduction, I am here on behalf of the members of the Forest Products Association of Canada. We're the national trade association that represents the majority of production of Canada's forest products, including lumber, pulp, and paper.
The industry, more broadly, represents about 11% of Canada's manufacturing GDP. We employ 273,000 workers directly across this country and another 500,000 or so indirectly. That comes to about 700,000 people.
We are the mainstay of about 300 communities from coast to coast, in every region of this country.
I am certain that the members of the committee know that the Canadian forest industry is currently undergoing a major crisis. I am sure that the members have had the opportunity to note that when we talk about job losses, we are not only talking about people who lose their jobs, but also about the destruction of communities. The topic of interest to us is not only the loss of jobs but the social integrity of rural Canada.
Even though the devastation, heartbreak, and social disintegration we're experiencing is cause for deep concern—and I think yesterday's debate in the House of Commons serves as a good example of the level of passion on all sides of the House about this issue—I would like to at least put on record today that we foresee strong markets coming back for the industry in the not-so-distant future.
We have traditional markets that are going to come back and also new and emerging markets for the industry, and we're prepared to take advantage of those markets when they do come back into play. Until that time, we obviously have a number of challenges ahead of us. First, we have to survive until those markets come back. Secondly, we have to be as competitive as possible, so that when the markets do come back, we are going to be able to compete. When those markets come back, we're going to be looking at competition that's fiercer and stronger than it ever was before.
The good news is that Canadian industry hasn't been alone in being hit by this recession. Our competitors have been hit too. Whether it's Brazil, Russia, or Europe, each and every one of them has been facing their own set of challenges that has put them at the same playing level as Canadian industry is at right now.
I am certain that you are wondering what the government can do. We know what we in the industry must do and we do it. But what can the government do?
We know what we have to do as an industry and we're doing it, but what can government do? One thing is for certain: government cannot bring markets back up to the levels where they need to be for us. That's the first thing that has to happen for this industry: People have to start buying lumber and people have to start buying paper again. The government cannot do that for the industry. That's the biggest thing that's facing the industry right now. As I said earlier, those markets will come back.
However, there is a fundamental role that government can play right now—that is, establishing the policy conditions here domestically that will enhance our competitiveness, not only now but also when those markets come back. There are certainly a number of things at the government's disposal, such as tax policy, providing for a competitive rail system, and investing in the green energy and bioeconomy right now, that it should be pursuing immediately, and that will set us up, not only this industry but the country more broadly.
Our markets will rebound. We know that the U.S. is going to start building houses again. We know that the markets in China and India are going to come back. We're already the leading exporter into the Chinese market. We're the third-largest Canadian exporter into the Indian market. We're well positioned and we look forward to taking advantage of those marketplaces again, once they come back.
In the short term, there are certainly some key challenges. I think one of the main things we're certainly worried about right now, in this current economic recession, is the loss of employees. Forestry jobs are highly skilled jobs. We cannot simply replace those employees with anybody just off the street. Our big concern right now is that, in a time like this, people go and look for jobs elsewhere. The changes that are incorporated in Bill C-50 and other changes to the EI program that came out of the budget of 2009 go a long way towards helping the industry retain its employees. This particular bill is one measure, but also the work-sharing program changes that were brought in through the budget are enormously helpful.
With the committee's indulgence, I would like to draw the committee's attention to one tiny change, or at least an area of interest, that we hope the committee will find the opportunity to look into a bit further, going down the road, on the work-sharing side of things.
Prior to the work-sharing program announcements, a number of companies were already taking advantage of the program. Those members received the top-up to their existing agreement and immediately qualified for a new 52-week agreement at the conclusion of their existing agreements, without a cooling-off period. Other companies that were relatively healthy at the turn of 2008 and were not in the program started their clock when the program began. Their benefits will conclude at the end of their 52 weeks. They will be subject to a 26-week cooling-off period. Right now, we don't see the markets returning for another year or so. A lot of those companies are going to be facing a 26-week waiting period to get back into the work-sharing program. We'd like to see the government take a long, hard look at that to see if there's a way that we can eliminate the 26-week waiting period. Ultimately, we think this will be of benefit to the government as it will be less costly at the end of the day.
Ultimately, as grateful as the industry is for these programs, like most insurance policies, we would prefer that our employees not have to avail themselves of the program. We would much rather keep the mills running and keep the employees gainfully employed in the towns in which they were raised or those communities that they have grown to be members of over time. Focusing on providing the industry with a competitive domestic policy framework should continue to be a strong objective for governments at all levels.
Again, on behalf of the Forest Products Association of Canada and our members, I thank the committee for its time and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.