A former Manitoba premier and one-time Canadian ambassador to the United States has been tagged to play hardball for Alberta's softwood lumber industry in Washington.
Gary Doer will join officials appointed by other provincial governments to lobby on their behalf on the softwood file, including former Conservative international trade and foreign affairs minister David Emerson, who was named by British Columbia earlier this year. Quebec and Ontario have also appointed their own envoys.
Mr. Doer says the goal isn't to negotiate individual deals for provinces, but for a Team Canada approach to get a negotiated agreement for all.
"We're going to try to be as effective as we can and use our own unique contacts with the United States but at the same time at a the end of the day it's going to be an agreement between Canada and the United States," he told The Canadian Press in a phone interview.
"All of us can put leverage on to get that agreement, particularly with customers."
Last October, Quebec hired Raymond Chrétien, who was Canada's ambassador in Washington between 1994 and 2000, to represent it in the softwood negotiations. Ontario hired former international trade minister Jim Peterson as its softwood lead in late April. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is leading the negotiations at the federal level.
On April 28, the U.S. Department of Commerce began slapping import tariffs of between 3 per cent and 24 per cent on softwood-lumber imports from Canada. The U.S. administration alleges Canada's wood comes mostly from Crown land and governments sell the wood at artificially low prices, thereby providing an unfair advantage to Canadian companies.
This is the fifth time since 1981 that Canada and the United States have argued over softwood; Canada has won most of its international trade and U.S. legal challenges against softwood duties. The latest softwood agreement reached in 2006 expired in 2015, but there was a year's grace period before the United States could take legal action.
As soon as that grace period ended, the U.S. Lumber Coalition asked for action, and the U.S. Department of Commerce's initial investigation was completed in April. The United States is expected in June to add anti-dumping duties to the countervailing duties.
The softwood dispute has become a major issue in the B.C. election campaign, which ends in a vote on Tuesday.
BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark, who has cast herself as the best defence against U.S. protectionism, has called for retaliation. In particular, she wants Ottawa to ban thermal-coal exports from B.C. ports, the majority of which comes from the United States, and has said she would impose a tax if the federal government doesn't act.
The federal government hasn't taken a position on the coal proposal. Last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a letter to Ms. Clark that said he was seriously considering her request and that his trade experts were studying it.
Mr. Doer said the critical element to getting another negotiated agreement is finding, working with and giving a louder voice to the American interests that are hurt by the duties. Those include furniture makers, home builders and home-renovation companies which Mr. Doer says are completely opposed to the duties because it pushes their costs up.
"To get what we got last time, we did it with allies in the United States," Mr. Doer said.
"That's the crucial part. And we do have allies. And they're customers. Customers don't have the voice that some of the special-interest groups do in Washington. It's our job to make sure the broader voices are heard in the United States."
Mr. Doer is a senior business adviser at Dentons global law firm where he works on cross-border legal matters.
The Canadian Press with files from Globe staff