When the Prime Minister’s Office released the ministerial mandate letters for the new cabinet last Friday, the thing that stood out to political observers, beyond the unprecedented nature of their publication at the federal level, was the specificity of the marching orders.
Which is why the omission, from Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland’s mandate, of the unresolved Canada-U.S. softwood lumber file raised eyebrows.
But, rest assured — the government is working on it.
The issue rests on a bilateral trade deal between Canada and the United States that lasted for the better part of a decade. Initially ratified in 2006, the agreement expired just prior to the 2015 federal election.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development suggests the agreement hasn’t been forgotten.
“The Government of Canada is committed to improving the Canada-US relationship, and we look forward to working with our U.S. partners to find a mutually-acceptable way forward on softwood lumber,” John Babcock said in an email.
He also indicated that Freeland has already started working on the file.
“Minister Freeland had a productive meeting with (U.S.) Ambassador Heyman on November 12 where they discussed ways our two countries could enhance the Canada-US relationship,” he wrote. “Finding a suitable solution to the softwood lumber file is a priority for Canada, and the Government of Canada will continue to promote and defend the interests of the softwood lumber industry.”
For the Alberta Forest Products Association, the absence of the agreement from Freeland’s letter is cause for concern.
“I’m hopeful that it’s an oversight, rather than a conscious decision to exclude it,” said Paul Whittaker, association president and chief executive officer.
Whittaker pointed to the letter’s references to the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as well as to forthcoming trade agreements with Israel, Chile and Ukraine.
“It does jump out at you that we’ve got a glaring example of a trade agreement, which is important to the forest sector, that’s specifically excluded,” Whittaker said, describing his first concern.
He also highlighted the fact the letter calls on Freeland to “promote Canadian agricultural interests during future trade negotiations.” And while he describes this as being “very supportive” and a “great goal,” Whittaker questions “why forestry would have been left out of a statement like that.”
Meanwhile, the Council of Forest Industries, which represents the industry in British Columbia’s interior, had a different response.
“The softwood lumber file is just one of a number of important trade files not mentioned by name in Minister Freeland’s mandate letter,” communications and engagement director Cam McAlpine said in an email. “The letter does direct her to continue bilateral initiatives to reduce trade impediments between Canada and the U.S., and we consider this a positive signal that the Minister will continue to advance Canada’s interests on the softwood file.“We don’t view the mandate letter as anything more than a general policy direction for the new cabinet, and we’re confident the federal government will continue to put a high priority on softwood lumber trade negotiations with the U.S.”
At the national level, the Forest Products Association of Canada declined to comment on the agreement except to say, “FPAC is hoping for a solution that is the least trade restrictive possible.”
B.C. Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson, in an emailed statement, said:
“Given the importance of the forest sector to B.C.’s economy, B.C. has asked that the federal government put a priority on negotiating a renewed softwood lumber managed trade agreement that provides fair access to the U.S. market. B.C. will continue to support the federal government in its negotiations with the U.S. in the hopes that a new agreement can be reached.
“B.C. expects such an agreement to be fair to the interests of both countries and their producers,” he said. “B.C. prefers free trade, but if that cannot be achieved for softwood lumber, a fair and equitable managed trade agreement is preferable to the U.S. imposing unwarranted duties on Canadian lumber imports.”
Ontario Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Bill Mauro oversees the file at Queen’s Park.
“The Ontario government is committed to working with the federal government and lumber companies to ensure continued access to the U.S. market for our softwood lumber producers,” press secretary Emily Kirk wrote in an email.
She recalled how the federal government consulted the forestry industry and provinces more than two years ago. “The result was that the Canadian government was given a mandate to seek a replication of the (existing) Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA),” Kirk said.
“Moving ahead with negotiations during the one-year stand-still period is a priority for Ontario and its forest industry.”