The inauguration of a highly protectionist president of the United States has sparked trepidation among B.C.’s forest-dependent communities and prompted B.C. Premier Christy Clark to tout her government’s efforts to find new markets outside the United States for its softwood lumber.
Donald Trump did not wait for the keys to the Oval Office to signal a new U.S. trade agenda that threatens to tear up trade deals deemed unfavourable to homegrown industry and jobs.
British Columbia, which supplies half of Canada’s softwood-lumber exports to the United States, is now bracing for what could be its toughest round of trade conflict over softwood lumber. Already, the U.S. International Trade Commission has launched an investigation into alleged harm of Canadian imports to the American softwood-lumber industry.
Speaking to the annual Truck Loggers Convention on Thursday, Ms. Clark vowed to continue to fight for B.C.’s forest industry in the latest trade battle.
“Time after time, without regard for the facts, the American government has accepted all of the allegations that have been filed by the U.S. lumber industry.”
“You would get more fair and impartial hearings from a judge at a pro-wrestling event,” the Premier told the convention.
“But they have picked a fight and they will find out that in British Columbia, we are no pushovers. In the long term, we are going to get a fair deal for British Columbia workers and British Columbia businesses.”
At the same time, Ms. Clark announced that the province has made progress in building alternative markets, with the first major shipment of B.C. lumber to India currently on its way.
The concerns remain, however, about what Mr. Trump’s administration will mean for those who rely on forestry in B.C.
In forestry-dependent communities that fear what a trade war might do to an already-struggling industry, the Premier’s remarks offered little assurance.
“We are on the front lines to be hit, it is hard to put into words the concerns that I have for my membership,” said David Elstone, executive director of the Truck Loggers Association.
Shirley Ackland, the mayor of Port McNeill, said the B.C. Liberal government has known for years that the softwood-lumber agreement was due to expire, but there was no early, visible effort to renegotiate.
“The focus of this government has been on [liquefied natural gas] while we’ve had 150 mills close in this province.”
The town of Port McNeill, on the north end of Vancouver Island, claims the title as British Columbia’s forestry capital.
Ms. Ackland moved to Port McNeill four decades ago, at a time when the community was shaped by its major forest-industry employers. The high school’s running track at that time had a state-of-the-art rubberized surface – a gift to the community from Western Forest Products. The local sports arena is named after Dale Chilton, a former CEO of the company, to acknowledge WFP’s support.
But the boom times were coming to an end. The story of B.C.’s forest industry since the early 1980s, when it employed 140,000 B.C. workers, has been a series of contractions. Successive provincial governments have offered a wide array of support: Retraining for displaced workers, international marketing campaigns, incentives to encourage secondary manufacturing and reforestation initiatives.
But the sector is still shrinking.
In 2001, when the B.C. Liberals took office, the province had 91,000 forestry jobs. The government launched a “revitalization plan” to tackle the decline. Today, there are about 60,000 forestry jobs and, in addition to the renewed softwood-lumber war with the United States, there is a shrinking timber supply due to the mountain pine beetle infestation.
This week, Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa signed a letter, along with mayors of seven other forest-resource communities, calling for a corporate tax break aimed at providing relief to struggling forest companies. The mayors want the province to eliminate its sales tax on industrial electricity purchases, which they say will improve competitiveness and save jobs.
In an interview, Mr. Formosa said the softwood-lumber trade war isn’t just another challenge, it is part of a larger threat to keeping rural communities alive.
He noted that rural communities in B.C. are aging – the median age of the work force in Powell River is 58. He worries that without incentives to help the local Catalyst pulp mill stay afloat, there will be little to attract or keep young families.
“If you look at these smaller resource communities, the industrial revolution is pretty much over – we don’t log as much, we don’t fish as much,” he said. “The government needs to be putting more efforts and resources into the smaller communities to keep them vibrant.”