BC Liberal Christy Clark, on the eve of a provincial election that will determine whether she remains Premier, is seizing on U.S. criticism of her retaliatory trade threats to pressure for a softwood deal as a validation of her tactics.
"With our ban on moving thermal coal, we have got the Americans' attention," Ms. Clark said Sunday as she began a day of campaigning ahead of Tuesday's provincial election. "We aren't going to be weaklings."
The Liberal leader, who is in a tight fight with the BC NDP to win Tuesday's election, was responding to a weekend statement from U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Mr. Ross said the Trump administration won't yield to pressure from the Canadian government – including British Columbia's proposal to ban thermal-coal shipments through the province.
He called such tactics "inappropriate."
Ms. Clark lobbed the term back: "Everything [the Americans] have done with regard to softwood has been utterly inappropriate," she said at a news conference following an appearance with her party's candidates in Surrey, southeast of Vancouver.
"It looks like we finally got their attention [after] four years of trying to negotiate a deal with an administration that just wasn't interested in getting a deal."
Ms. Clark asked the federal government to ban thermal-coal shipments after the United States slapped punitive tariffs on Canadian softwood, resuming the decades-old trade dispute between the two countries.
Canada provides close to one-third of the U.S. market for softwood lumber, and efforts to reach a new deal before Donald Trump entered the White House fell apart after the outgoing Obama administration had proposed a dramatically reduced share of the U.S. market.
Last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a letter to Ms. Clark, announcing he was seriously considering her request to ban thermal-coal exports through the province and that his trade experts were studying it.
Ms. Clark has said that if she is re-elected on May 9, her government would take unilateral action if Ottawa does not accept her request. The province would slap prohibitively high tariffs on coal shipments – something Ms. Clark says she will do in the name of the environment, even if the softwood dispute is resolved.
It's not clear, if the Liberals lose the election, what will happen to that threat. The BC Greens oppose thermal-coal shipments, but NDP leader John Horgan on Sunday criticized the retaliatory measures as a "desperate" effort to divert B.C. voters from issues such as daycare shortages and a housing crisis that exploded during the Liberal government's reign.
"I don't believe Christy Clark has Washington's attention, I think Christy Clark is trying to divert attention away from the issues that matter to British Columbians. If she wants to run against Donald Trump, she could have registered as a Democrat and tried there. We're running an election here in British Columbia, talking about the issues that matter to people," he told reporters during a campaign stop in Vancouver.
He noted Ms. Clark's own appointed envoy on softwood, David Emerson, did not advise her government to drag coal into the dispute. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Emerson said earlier: "I have not participated in searching for retaliation measures."
Mr. Horgan has said the softwood-lumber dispute would be a top priority for him if he is elected, but he would work with Ottawa instead of pursuing unilateral trade threats.
Mr. Horgan spent the morning mingling with voters at a public market in Vancouver, where a couple with a seven-month-old baby talked to him about the NDP's proposed daycare program, and a realtor told him he would vote NDP because he is watching middle-class home buyers flee the city because of sky-high real estate prices in Metro Vancouver.
"People are engaged in this election campaign because we are talking about the issues that matter to people," Mr. Horgan said. "Christy Clark pretends she is fighting with Donald Trump. That strikes me as a campaign that is desperate, a campaign that is not focused on people."
He said if his party wins the election, "one of my first orders of business when I talk to the Prime Minister is to make sure we have a common front and we make sure Washington hears loud and clear from Canada that we are fair traders, we are free traders and we are not going to be pushed around. We are going to be making sure we fight for jobs in B.C."
Ms. Clark acknowledged that the federal government is in charge of the softwood file, "but nobody has a bigger stake in this than B.C. workers," she said, noting that 60 per cent of the softwood that leaves Canada comes from British Columbia.
"Canadians are nice, patient, polite people but, honestly, when the Americans are going to try and throw one in three forest workers out of work in Canada, it's time to stand up and that's what we're doing," she said.
Ms. Clark toured several Lower Mainland ridings on Sunday, mainstreeting with BC Liberal candidates in nine stops as she made the case for the re-election of her party for a fifth, consecutive term in government. She emphasized a commitment to jobs and low taxes.
"I just want to meet and talk to as many British Columbians as I can," she said.