Mr. Speaker, the riding of Saint-Maurice—Champlain, which I represent in this House, has been particularly affected by the softwood lumber dispute that has been going on for many years. Indeed, forestry operations are the cornerstone of economic development for many municipalities in my riding.
I am talking about the whole area surrounding the town of La Tuque, including obviously Parent, Trois-Rives, Saint-Roch-de-Mékinac and Saint-Joseph-de-Mékinac, Saint-Tite, Sainte-Thècle, Notre-Dame-de-Montauban, Saint-Séverin and Saint-Adelphe—all towns and villages where companies working in the softwood lumber industry are located. I say this to emphasize the extent to which Bill C-24 will have an impact on the future of those communities, on tens of thousands of workers, and the thousands of families that depend on the decisions that we make in this House.
Considering the great importance of this issue for all the people whom I am pledged to properly represent, I decided to carry out my own consultations this past July and August among the various companies affected by the provisions of the softwood lumber agreement that was reached on July 1, 2006, by the international trade ministers of Canada and the United States. I consulted companies such as Abitibi-Consolidated, in particular La Tuque Forestry Products, Shermag, Commonwealth Plywood, Gérard Crête et fils, as well as the Groupe Rémabec. These consultations brought out several points.
First, the softwood lumber industry in general and its companies have been greatly harmed by the countervailing duties imposed by the United States since 2002. Second, the federal government has not provided sufficient support, neither the previous Liberal government nor the Conservative government. There have been no loan guarantees despite all the promises made in recent years, which has further weakened the companies in their dealings with the Americans. Third, many bankruptcies could have been avoided if those loan guarantees had been provided. Fourth, we have won most of the court challenges but the Americans took no account of the decisions in our favour and continued litigation at another level. We won there as well but in the final analysis it was an unending cycle.
For all of these reasons, the lawyers representing many of these companies would have advised their firms not to accept the agreement. However, at the same time—I was told very clearly—the bankers for those same companies told them that they would have to accept this settlement because they were in a precarious financial situation. They desperately needed to quickly recover the funds paid out in countervailing duties, even though they amounted to only 81% of the total paid.
For all these reasons, and even though all the companies I talked to say that this is not necessarily a good agreement—they know it, and I will come back to that—they are asking me to vote for the agreement, because they are barely getting by and any delay could lead to more bankruptcies and more job losses in the short term.
In light of all these factors, I will therefore vote for this bill. But I still want to point out once again that these companies might have made quite a different choice if the Conservative and Liberal governments had supported them properly when they needed support. That would have levelled the playing field and shown the Americans that Quebec and Canadian companies were not in the fight alone.
Now, looking at all of Quebec—not just La Mauricie, as I have just done—I can say beyond all doubt that the situation is the same everywhere. The industry in Quebec is accepting this agreement reluctantly, because it can no longer defend itself. The softwood lumber dispute has weakened the economies of many areas of Quebec. The lack of support from the Liberals and Conservatives has caused many companies to close their doors. Others have declared bankruptcy. Thousands of jobs have been lost. The human drama resulting from these unfortunate situations could have been prevented if only those who had promised loan guarantees had kept their promises.
I said earlier that companies are accepting this bad deal reluctantly. In fact, they feel forced to accept it because, in many cases, they cannot wait any longer.
They are not agreeing gladly to leave so much money—$1 billion—in the Bush administration's coffers. They are not happy to be accepting an agreement that does nothing to resolve many problems that have plagued the industry for years: lack of investment in research and development, lack of adequate market diversification programs and lack of support for new equipment purchases.
Since this agreement does not solve all the problems, the government will have to make a commitment to put in place a series of measures to mitigate the negative effects caused by this long-lasting dispute in Quebec.
The Bloc Québécois therefore proposes several such measures, including an income support program for older people; an economic diversification program for the communities that depend on forest resources; an increase in the funding for the Canadian model forest program run by Forestry Canada; a special tax status for the 128,000 private woodlot owners in Quebec; special tax treatment for the $4.3 billion in countervailing and antidumping duties to be refunded by the American authorities so as to take account of the financial damage suffered by these companies; an acceleration in equipment amortization; a program to stimulate innovation in the forest industry and improve its productivity; a market diversification and lumber marketing program; and financial compensation for maintenance of the forest network. It is important for these measures to be put in place as of this fall.
There is another important element to consider in connection with BillC-24, and that is the monitoring of the much too rigid export quotas currently proposed. In fact the companies will be very limited in their use of unused quotas since the agreement provides that transfers will be limited to just two consecutive months.
In view of the cyclical nature of supply and demand in softwood lumber, such a provision does not at all meet the need for flexibility on the part of both the industry and consumers. This very rigid aspect of the agreement will have to be relaxed at meetings of the binational council.
In this regard, on June 13, in this House, the Minister of International Trade said to my colleague, the member for Joliette, that the agreement would not contain a rigid cap on export quotas.
I also wish to point out that the duration of the agreement is something else that weakens it, since one clause provides that, after just 18 months, the agreement may be terminated on six months’ advance notice.
In short, the agreement will ensure trade peace for three years and will help the industry in the short and medium term, but only in the current context, in which it is on life-support. We note also that the government has given up in this regard since, last summer, it was talking about a firm seven-year agreement.
Furthermore, we have before us a theoretical agreement because it cannot come into effect until all the cases currently before the courts are withdrawn. But if the cases brought before the courts by companies under section 11 of NAFTA are not withdrawn, it means that the agreement is not valid, even if the bill is approved. If this were to happen, the government would very quickly have to put in place a guaranteed loan program, as it has already promised by the way.
In conclusion, I specify that I will vote in favour of bill C-24, not because it is about a sound trade agreement—because in numerous respects, it is quite the opposite—but because the workers of Saint-Maurice—Champlain and the companies who employ them cannot afford to wait any longer.