Montana’s congressional delegation is still waiting for answers to letters they sent regarding cross-border issues with Canada, but that could be because Canadians are waiting for answers themselves.

“With the election of (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau, the tone and outlook of the federal government took a pretty big change,” said political science assistant professor Greg Anderson of the University of Alberta. “And even though (former Prime Minister Stephen) Harper and his people were sourced from Alberta, the conservative government here wasn’t the same as the conservative government in Ottawa. It’s a pretty complicated landscape, with a lot of nuances in the parties.”

That could mean some different directions on many of the topics Republican Sen. Steve Daines, Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester raised earlier this month in separate letters to Canadian authorities. Daines and Zinke co-signed a letter to Trudeau directly, while Tester addressed his concerns to Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay.


The Republicans asked for “consideration of a few pending issues that are of great importance to our constituents,” including the Softwood Lumber Agreement, Columbia River Treaty and Keystone XL pipeline project. Tester focused his letter on a dispute over how Canada grades wheat and barley shipments imported from U.S. farms.

“While I appreciate Canada’s reforms in recent years to harmonize its grain laws and regulations with world wheat markets, I remain concerned about Canada’s wheat grading system and its effect on agricultural trade between our nations,” Tester wrote MacAulay. “Due to current Canadian law, Montana’s wheat is automatically downgraded to the lowest quality designation when imported into Canada. The downgrade occurs without considering the variety or quality of the grain, which is counter to the United States’ system of grading Canadian wheat.”

Daines and Zinke also raised the Canada Grains Act and Varietal Registration System as an issue in their letter. All three asked for a more balanced competition system.

The Softwood Lumber Agreement expired Oct. 12. There is a 12-month grace period in effect allowing both sides to renegotiate, and prohibiting either side from starting court challenges to the other’s policy. Daines and Zinke noted that global markets for lumber have changed since the original agreement was negotiated in 2006. The deal settled claims Canadians were dumping lumber on the American market and the U.S. was unfairly putting import tariffs on Canadian wood.

“Our state’s wood product industry has been consistent in their message that a new agreement is of necessity,” Daines and Zinke wrote. “We urge your administration to deem this agreement as a priority, particularly in light of the challenges both our timber industries face in our local, national and global markets.”

The Columbia River Treaty is considerably more complicated. It governs the system of dams, reservoirs and power production coming from the 1,243-mile river that flows through British Columbia, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, with major tributaries in Montana. Canadian reservoir management governs irrigation and hydropower flows downstream in the U.S., which also buys most of the electricity generated from the dams.

The treaty was signed in 1964, and ran for 50 years. If either side wants to end the agreement, it must give 10 years’ notice. The U.S. side has recommended negotiating a new treaty that should be in place by 2024.


While all three of Montana’s congressional members voted for the Keystone XL pipeline to go forward, only Daines and Zinke brought it up to the Canadians.

They noted “you may rest assured this remains a top priority for the people of Montana. … Not only would Montana gain much needed direct and indirect jobs to support the pipeline, but our countries would have the capacity to promote mutual economic development and resourcefulness in the face of global uncertainty. We respectfully request that you do not authorize any contingency plans for Keystone XL until our election process is complete.”

However, the election process in Alberta could have an even bigger impact on that decision. The province underwent a political sea change in May with the election of Premier Rachel Notley. In addition to overthrowing the Progressive Conservative Party that had been dominant for 44 years, 25 of the 53 recently elected members of parliament from Notley’s New Democratic Party are women – a record for Alberta. But only four are incumbent legislators.

“The conservative party had really shot itself in the foot in many ways,” Anderson said of the power shift. “Albertans were prepared to give somebody else a try, and the NDP looked like a competent alternative. But with a weakening provincial economy largely based on oil production, the NDP was handed a terrible hand. There’s not much to work with.”

Or much work, for that matter. Alberta faces a 6.5 percent unemployment rate, its highest in 27 years. And with crude oil selling globally for around $40 a barrel, it’s likely to shed thousands more jobs in its high-production-cost northern oil sands fields.

Montanans would be well advised to keep Canadian provinces in mind as well as the federal government, Anderson added.

“Provincial governments have almost exclusive authority over anything connected with natural resources,” Anderson said. “Each province cutting timber has its own rules and regimes for fees paid off public lands. The Columbia River Treaty is between Ottawa and Washington, but if some consideration on water resource rights comes up, British Columbia would have to be at the table and have a pretty big stick to wield. Washington has way more power over the states than Ottawa has over provinces.”