Mr. Chairman, I thank the hon. member of the Canadian Alliance for calling for this debate, and the Chair for allowing it this evening.
Softwood lumber is something we have been following closely for some months, because it requires constant attention.
For those in our audience who might not necessarily be very familiar with the issue, the American market for Canadian and Quebec softwood lumber is a very vital one for us.
The Americans have imposed a countervailing duty of 19.3% as the result of a preliminary decision by the American department of industry; this would be somewhat retroactive if maintained. The Bloc Quebecois has intervened on several occasions in order to seek massive support in the House for the return to free trade in softwood lumber. Why? Because softwood lumber producers in Quebec and in Canada have developed a highly competitive product capable of going for a better price in the U.S. market than many U.S. products. This is, moreover, acknowledged by U.S. consumers, who want to see quality lumber from Canada available in their country, because it would bring their house prices down.
We are fighting a major battle. It is vital we convince the Americans, at all levels, of the relevance of our position. I think that, in this regard, we must as members of the opposition serve as watchdog to ensure the government is not transforming the information and discussion sessions into negotiation sessions.
The Minister for International Trade has confirmed this was not the case. We accept his word and hope things continue this way. A lot of effort was put into winning the battle in the preceding months.
I myself went to Washington with a non-partisan delegation of members, including the member for Joliette and the member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis. We went to meet American representatives. I met someone from Louisiana who thought Canadian softwood lumber competed with his softwood lumber production in Louisiana. We had a discussion and in the end he understood that the softwood lumber produced in Louisiana did not compete with that produced in Canada.
This sort of intervention, on a small scale, between individuals, means that today the Americans have a better understanding of the facts. There is still a way to go and we must make sure we carry on.
In that sense, the visit of the Bloc Quebecois leader in my riding in late August has shown that both producers and workers want to keep fighting until we reach our ultimate goal, to restore free trade.
Obviously there is a short term negative impact. For example, the price of lumber tends to drop in Canada. With a 19% tariff, we have oversupply on the Canadian market and that tends to put pressure on the price. Our producers will have to live with that. Also their benefits have dropped and ultimately jobs are lost.
Speaking of which, we will need to show solidarity if we are to stand fast to the end, until we get a final decision. One of the things we should do, and I urge the government to do it, is make sure that during that difficult period there is a special effort to diversify regional economies and to adjust the employment insurance plan.
The people who will be laid off a little sooner because there are fewer jobs in Quebec cutting, processing and shipping wood to the United States because of countervailing duties deserve a chance at EI benefits for a reasonable number of weeks.
For example, in all regions where forestry is a major industry, people could be allowed to qualify with 420 hours of work, rather than something higher if the rate of unemployment is not very high. There is therefore work to be done with respect to the EI plan.
Efforts could also be made to diversify forestry products. A particular effort is required in the next few years because, every time we export softwood lumber which has been processed, it is not affected by countervailing duties. This takes the pressure off and would give us an argument in our discussions with the Americans.
It is important that there be this kind of debate. It is important that we make it clear that we are behind the position Canada is now defending, provided that it defends it all the way.
The worst thing would be to return to an agreement like the one we had before, which expired on March 31.
We have come too far to go back to a position like that. Let us hope that there will be an outcome which sees the end of countervailing duties and that the Americans will also recognize that free trade is the way of the future.
The free trade agreement signed with the Americans concerned a number of areas. Why not respect it? It would be to everyone's benefit.
Talks are now underway. They are not negotiations but if they lead to a long term free trade solution, so much the better. That is what we must hope for.
Many people showed maturity in this area. The Quebec government mandated Pierre-Marc Johnson, a former Quebec premier, to ensure that the Quebec position was well championed. We also contributed to the study that my colleague from Abitibi--Baie-James--Nunavik referred to earlier, a very serious study, which showed that in fact Quebec was not giving any hidden subsidy to the softwood lumber industry, that we can compete on the North American market and that we are looking forward to an open market.
I hope that all of these positions, those adopted by Quebec, the other provinces and the federal government, bring us closer to a sustainable solution, a solution that will ensure that we will not have to deal with the present situation again in five or ten years.
Let us not forget that the five year agreement that came to an end on March 31 had a somewhat negative impact on productivity. American businesses took advantage of this period to catch up somewhat in terms of productivity, while the best would have won had the market remained fully open.
This is what we are prepared to live with on the competition level. We are ready to live with the Americans and the producers of North America. We believe we are able to take on the challenge and take our share of the market.
This is evidenced by the fact that, during the five years of the agreement allowing countervailing duties, those Canadian provinces that were not included had an advantage that I would describe as unfair in some respects.
If we could come back to full free trade, then there would be a level playing field. My riding is adjacent to the maritimes. In the last five or six years, exports have increased considerably throughout Canada, but particularly in the maritimes. Indeed, we had to predict the part of the duty that we had to make up for.
We must follow the situation very closely. Now that the international situation is stabilizing somewhat, that the terrible events of September 11, which we will never be able to put right, are behind us, we are trying to see if we can make up for the negative effects they have had on the economy.
In a region like mine, entire villages are economically dependent on the lumber industry. I am talking about villages that members do not necessarily know, small communities of 500, 1,000 or 1,500 in the Témiscouata region. I am also talking about small towns. All these communities depend on the lumber industry and we must find a satisfactory solution for their sake.
The workers who live in these communities that have achieved a good productivity level in co-operation with local industries deserve that we go to the end of the negotiation process. That is what I want. I want us to continue to apply pressure and to make compromises. Some interesting and promising meetings are going on right now and we want them to continue.
I was told that there was going to be other meetings in Vancouver and in Montreal. Let us give those meetings a chance to produce some interesting results. But let us not change our fundamental position. We want free trade again, not a compromise that would repeat the agreement that expired on March 31 of this year.
Right now, any tendency to soften our position would amount to recognizing our weakness and that would be unacceptable.
Let us continue to pursue this issue with the Americans and to argue our point, and we will find a solution. That solution will benefit both the lumber producers and the consumers who need that lumber to build houses and buildings throughout North America.