Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
If I may, I will be making my comments in my first language. International trade is my second language as it is. However, I will attempt to answer questions in the official language of your choice.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
It's an honour to be here to talk to you about Canada's key commercial interests with our largest and most important trading partner, the United States.
With me this morning are colleagues who will be able to answer you in matters of specific detail on various files. Martin, in particular, might answer your questions on matters related to NAFTA and to the “buy America” program; Callie, with respect to issues related to COOL.
I apologize for the absence of Suzanne McKellips, who was also scheduled to appear. Suzanne is the director general responsible for import and export permits, but also for the operation of the Softwood Lumber Agreement. She has trusted me with that file because she is in consultations today with both the provinces and industry with respect to responding to the loss by Canada in an arbitration case under the softwood lumber agreement last week. Canada's response to that decision is an urgent matter.
More general matters related to the Canada-U.S. relationship are handled by Deborah.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance of this relationship with the United States and how it contributes to Canada's prosperity. The visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Ottawa on February 19 underscored the importance of this relationship. It provided an opportunity for our leaders to explore ways in which Canada and the United States could work together more closely to advance our shared bilateral and international objectives.
During the visit, the President and the Prime Minister discussed each country's efforts to strengthen our economies and our respective economic recovery packages, and identified how we can work together to restore confidence in international markets. The leaders also discussed North American security, including the management of the Canada-U.S. border, environmental protection, and the development of clean energy technologies.
The visit was also an important occasion to set a positive and forward-looking tone for our relations with the new U.S. administration. As both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have indicated, we're seeking to renew our bilateral relationship with our most important partner.
The continued good health of this relationship is vital to Canadian prosperity. I can assure you that we've been working towards engaging both the new U.S. administration and Congress for some time now. Through our embassy in Washington and at our 22 missions in the United States, we've been very active in advocating Canada's interests and engaging the incoming key players, both in Washington and at the state government level. We do this in close cooperation with other federal government departments in order to ensure a whole-of-government approach to Canada-U.S. engagement.
In the United States, our missions have been working to reinforce, through key American opinion leaders, that Canada is a key economic and security partner and their largest energy supplier. Both countries will benefit from working together to strengthen our integrated economies during these difficult times. Collaboration to protect our shared environment is in our mutual interest.
The deep and diverse relationship we share provides many opportunities for collaboration. We share political, economic, environmental, and social ties, and many values and interests. Our two countries share the largest bilateral trading relationship between any two countries in the world. NAFTA has helped develop this great trading relationship even further.
Trilateral merchandise trade among the NAFTA partners has more than tripled since the agreement entered into effect, reaching $943.3 billion U.S. in 2008. NAFTA also enhances Canada's attractiveness as a location for foreign direct investment. It helps to ensure that regional and global value chains continue to run through Canada, with our businesses and our workers contributing the enormous value of their skills, ingenuity, and energy. We are working with the United States and Mexico to further facilitate trade within the framework of NAFTA.
Another example of our close relationship is the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber agreement. The softwood lumber agreement has benefited Canadian industry since it came into force in 2006. It stopped years of punishing duties against Canadian companies and returned $4.5 billion of these duties to the companies that paid them.
Considering that 85% of our softwood lumber exports go to the United States, the stable and secure access to the American market provided by the softwood lumber agreement is critical for the well-being of this industry, now more than ever. As a result, both industry and the provinces express continued support for the access to the U.S. market provided by the softwood lumber agreement.
However, the U.S. industry, led by the U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, continues to lobby Congress, and now the new administration, to press for an aggressive line with Canada on softwood lumber agreement enforcement. It is currently unclear how the new administration will respond.
In addition, a number of U.S. senators and governors have recently contacted President Obama, accusing Canada of violating the agreement. These accusations were not raised by President Obama during his meeting with the Prime Minister, and Canada is using formal and informal mechanisms to respond to these unfounded allegations.
In light of the current difficult economic circumstances, Canadian producers strongly support the secure market access provided by the softwood lumber agreement. They believe they would fare much worse under a new round of U.S. trade remedy measures if the agreement were terminated. The provinces also continue to express support for the softwood lumber agreement, which provides longer-term benefits, such as protecting their ability to manage their forest resources.
It is for these reasons, although Canada was disappointed with the recent decision in the adjustment factor arbitration, that officials, in coordination with the provinces and industry associations, are looking at means to implement the decision within the required timeframe. The softwood lumber agreement that maintains secure and stable access to the American market, a market that is critical to the survival and success of the Canadian industry, is important to us. Maintaining the agreement and that market access remains a top priority and must continue to be proactively pursued.
Returning to the broader context, our first and most important challenge will certainly be to address the global economic downturn and to take action to promote the recovery of our economies. Given the paramount importance of the Canada-U.S. trading relationship and the highly integrated nature of the North American economy, Canada and the United States must continue to work together to promote recovery and the strengthening of our economies.
President Obama has signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which seeks to provide a significant stimulus to the U.S. economy, now going through a major downturn. The cost of the act is estimated at $787 billion U.S. and includes extensive tax cuts, assistance to state and local authorities for education investment, new health care investments, unemployment benefits, and infrastructure and energy investments.
Of concern to Canada are the provisions in the act relating to the “buy American” requirements. These affect iron and steel and manufactured goods for public works and public buildings. Canada succeeded in having a commitment inserted into the act that the U.S. would only apply “buy American” provisions in a manner consistent with its international obligations. In addition, we are continuing to push for the U.S. to recognize the integrated nature of our two economies and to minimize the impact on trade when implementing these provisions.
The economic outlook is challenging for the United States in the short and medium terms, with some forecasters suggesting that the U.S. GDP will contract by 4% in the first quarter of 2009. More than 650,000 jobs were lost in February.
We have seen the fallout in Canada already, as Canadian manufacturing, heavily dependent on U.S. business, reported an 8% drop in December sales compared to the previous month.
We will continue to support Canadian businesses seeking assistance to deepen and secure current relationships or find new opportunities in the U.S. market. To do this, we have established a series of business development and advocacy networks on areas as diverse as energy, the economy, and defence cooperation, thus reaching out to a whole new range of stakeholders and business clients.
In order to protect and expand our commerce, there is no question that the Canada-U.S. border remains a policy priority for Canada and is also a key area for cooperation with the new administration. We have a long-standing security partnership that protects North America against terrorism. Our border, intelligence, and immigration agencies, with our police forces, have been cooperating for decades.
This cooperation must continue. It includes ensuring that the border remains open to legitimate tourism and trade, and closed to threats. Our highly integrated and interdependent economies, our collective competitiveness, and our economic recovery depend on smart and efficient border management at a time when our industries need all the help they can get.
In conclusion, Canada and the United States have a long and successful history of cooperation on global issues. We share the same values--freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We welcome the new administration's enthusiasm for global engagement and its desire to rekindle U.S. leadership in the world. We are confident that our unparalleled partnership will remain strong and forward-looking as we work together to enhance North American competitiveness and for the security and well-being of our people. We must not lose sight of the value of our relationship, of the solid basis we've formed over the years that will see us through the challenges that we face today. We will continue to work on ways to make more out of the Canada-U.S. partnership for all Canadians.
Thank you very much.