Justin Trudeau and his Liberals are continuing to show that they are out of touch with regular working-class Canadians. Their failure to negotiate a new softwood lumber agreement is just another example and is a direct slight to forestry families here in Saskatchewan and those across the country who rely on the industry for the income they need to make a living.
Forestry is not an insignificant industry to Canada. It employs almost 400,000 Canadians from coast to coast to coast and our softwood exports in particular are especially dependent on access to the American market. In 2014, 66 percent of all Canadian softwood exports were shipped to the U.S and today we hold about 27 percent of the U.S. market.
It is clear to see that without stable and predictable access to the American market, the Canadian forestry industry will suffer. This makes it all the more astonishing that, given these economic realities and the October 2016 deadline which was known well in advance, Justin Trudeau and his Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland did not make the negotiation of a new softwood lumber agreement a priority for their government. It was noticeably absent from the Minister’s mandate letter and did not feature in the Liberal election platform among their 219 promises to Canadians.
Once it became obvious that this was actually something that his government would have to take action on, Justin Trudeau promised a deal by one hundred days after his trip to Washington in February of this year. He raised everyone’s expectations, especially those who depend on the industry to provide for their families. When the deadline came and went in June with no deal to be announced, all these families got from their government were platitudes and poor excuses about how tough the deal was to negotiate.
There is only one way that this deal was ever going to get done and that was by Justin Trudeau making it his number one priority for his engagement with President Obama and personally requesting that it be solved. Every meeting he and his Ministers had with their American counterparts needed to have softwood lumber as the number one issue in the room and this engagement had to take place on a deeper level than just photo ops and press conferences. It would have required spending a bit of political capital.
This is how former Prime Minister Harper solved the last softwood lumber dispute in 2006. After being elected for the first time in January of that year, during a meeting with then President Bush, Prime Minister Harper made the case for why solving the softwood lumber dispute was his number one priority for the Canada-U.S. relationship and each of his Ministers and Conservative Members of Parliament reiterated this priority in every meeting they had in Washington. Three months later, a framework for a deal was negotiated and the entire forestry industry breathed a sigh of relief that perhaps jobs might begin to be saved.
Indeed, our own home of Prince Albert bled jobs during the last dispute when the pulp mill closure was announced late in 2005. It cost our local economy approximately 2000 jobs - 700 at the mill itself in addition to the over one thousand more that involved harvesting and hauling timber out of the forest. I fear that this same volatility is what we will see again now that we are truly entering into another dispute over softwood lumber. The last one cost our forestry industry over $5 billion which the industry and the Canadian economy could not afford then and certainly cannot afford now.
After one year in government, it is about time that Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland start owning up to the hard work that needs to be done to protect Canadian jobs. Prime Minister Trudeau is said to enjoy a close relationship with President Obama, but it is a relationship of utility that has an expiry date of January 2017 when a new president is inaugurated. For the good of 400,000 Canadian jobs, he should cash in on this relationship now and urgently work to get a good agreement on softwood lumber across the finish line.