Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to take part in today's debate. The region I represent, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, is home to many people who earn their living in the forest industry. There are numerous companies, including a couple of the major players like Tembec, which is one of the companies that has decided to sue the U.S. government.
There are a lot of small businesses, small sawmills, so there are a lot of people involved. Because we are so close to the resource, and for a number of other reasons, lumbering has developed into a major industry.
Today—and not for the first time, because the softwood lumber dispute with the Americans has gone on for some time—here we are again, only days away from a very serious threat that is hanging over our heads, which is that the Americans are going to crack down on us with a tax on our softwood lumber exports to the U.S. market.
A lot of jobs in our region depend on this, and today we find ourselves faced with a situation where a lot of people are worried. We have a situation that is going to happen within weeks, and no response from the government is forthcoming, no message of, “Come on now, we will be there to support you and this is exactly how”. All they were told is, “There is a whole series of government programs and you can just sort through them and maybe come up with something that will help you get through this”.
But this is a very unique crisis. The federal government is responsible for negotiating international agreements. Canada has entered into an era of free trade with the U.S., except that now we are faced with a situation where, when our industry is performing, doing really well, the Americans have decided this does not suit them and so they are going to impose a tax on us that will slow down our exports, whereas whenever we got into a legal wrangle in the past over softwood lumber, we were the ones who won out.
The problem is that the government negotiated agreements with the Americans, agreements that have always benefited the U.S. government and American businesses.
This is an agreement that has expired, and we have voluntarily limited our exports to the United States. We had a system of quotas whereby the provinces were subjected to a limit in terms of what they could export on the U.S. market. This system was based on choices that were often made randomly, in terms of who would get the quotas and who would not. It was not fair.
Only four provinces, namely Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, were affected by the export limit and the quotas. The other provinces could sell their products to the United States as they wished. So, a series of terrible inequities led to the situation in which we now find ourselves.
What I deeply resent in all this is to see how the Canadian government is down on its knees when dealing with the U.S. government. It did not raise its voice to say, “Listen, this does not make any sense”. The minister did it once, outside the House of Commons. He tried to act tough by telling the Americans “Wait a minute, this is not the way it is going to be”.
This means taking real action, such as saying “Yes, we will stand behind our industry”. There is an idea going around that I find interesting: it is to give loans to companies, so that they can continue to sell their products on the market. These loans would allow them to pay the duties.
Sure, some will say, “Is this truly in compliance with international agreements and so on and so forth?” The Americans did not ask themselves whether their action was in compliance with these agreements or not. They told themselves, “We will take measures so that companies in Quebec and in Canada will be destabilized for two or three years, and we will see the outcome of the legal battle. We will try to intimidate them, so that they will accept an agreement that will benefit us”.
We, being nice people, are saying, “Yes, we will challenge this all the way”. We must do so indeed, but we must also strengthen our position.
We will support our industry and we will not let things happen as we are doing right now. In other words, we will support workers if jobs are lost, not with the regular programs, but in a special and specific way. We must show that we mean business.
When the government commits money to the fight, then we will know that it really does have the will to go all the way and reach a settlement.
When it decides to lend large sums of money to support the industry, it will be because it is confident that it will win in the end. It will not lose much, just what it cost in interest payments. Even there, the Americans will compensate us if we win this conflict.
Everyone here seems to agree that we will win the legal battle. This is a case of minimal financial risk. The idea is an interesting one. The government is saying, “We are going to wait until there are job losses, a few more job losses. We are not really sure what the impact is yet, if it is the market slowing, or normal restructuring”. The minister seems satisfied to say, “We will wait and see”.
There are people who are wondering if, in a few weeks, they will be working of if they will have lost their job. We are going to see lumber pile up in the yards, and people will say, “What is happening? Are we selling our products”.
For us, the lumber market is something real. We see it is doing well when we look in the plant yards. When they are full, we know what to expect and what that means. We are experiencing this now.
Obviously, there are normal cycles over the course of the year. There are periods of layoffs and slowdowns. The layoffs that we are about to see will be because of a political crisis caused by American businesses that lobbied politicians hard, and they responded. Here, we are very shy to respond to the industry.
In our region for instance, Tembec is one of the major players in the coalition for free trade. This company has decided to take the U.S. government to court under the trade agreements, using the argument that there will be losses associated with a political decision in the United States. I think it would be nice if business people could stick to business and the government could do its job in the field of international relations and ensure that, when it negotiates free trade agreements, it can support our industries when there are problems and litigation. This is a major issue with a significant impact.
This holds true for many regions in Quebec, and in northern Ontario. Our neighbours will be in the same boat. There will be major economic repercussions. In recent years in my region, we have been through a major crisis in the mining industry, which cost us many jobs.
In my riding—multiply this by two to get a picture of the region, because there are two ridings there—, between the 1996 and 2001 censuses, 5,000 people left the region. This has a definite impact on our ability to maintain adequate effective public services, such as schools, hospitals and so forth. There has to be economic activity. Fortunately, the price of gold and metals—particularly gold—is coming back up, which is pumping new life into the region. At the same time, forestry is an extremely important industry in the area. It cannot be abandoned like this.
There are other parallel measures that should be taken. There must be more support for forestry research and development. I remember the technology partnership program. Back then, the government invested heavily in the new economy. It was impossible to apply for projects from the natural resources sector. There was no program providing adequate support for the activities of these industries.
The reaction from Ottawa was “no”, but fortunately the Government of Quebec had supported research activities, particularly in the case of Tembec in Témiscamingue, and in others as well. Here in Ottawa, the answer was, “No, no program”, but we invested and placed a great deal of store in new technology. This was justified, but at the same time traditional sectors of the economy are also extremely important. This could be seen in the drop in high tech in the past two years, the stock market share and bond losses in this area. It can be seen that the same is not true as far as our economy is concerned. There are sure values and these must not be forgotten.
Certain myths notwithstanding, the productivity of the natural resources sector is very good. It must continue that way; we must maintain our competitive edge.
During the two years the industry is likely to be destabilized, are businesses going to continue to invest as much in R and D? Are they going to plan investments for modernization? They will be under heavy financial pressure. This will have impact in a number of areas and cannot be allowed. A clear message needs to be sent to our industry, to our workers, to our people, the men and women who earn their livings in this industry, that we will be with them.
We must also send a signal to the U.S. government that we will not give up, that we will do whatever it takes. One way to show how serious we are would be to table immediately, without delay, an action plan that would make them realize that we are ready to go far, to fight to the end.
If it is possible to reach a settlement that would bring us back to free trade, only then would we consider signing an agreement with the Americans. Otherwise, let us fight to the end and let us support the industry and the workers in the meantime.