B.C. Premier Christy Clark says the province will fight the punitive softwood lumber tariffs imposed this week by the United States, but industry leaders say the province should also be preparing plans to offer support for workers at risk of losing their jobs.
David Emerson, B.C.'s special envoy on the softwood lumber dispute, said the province's smaller, independent mills and manufacturers are vulnerable now that they have to pay a new duty to get their exports to the U.S. Major forestry companies will be able to manage their books because lumber prices are rising. But the smaller companies could be challenged, he said.
"I think we are a ways from seeing a bloodbath in the woods," Mr. Emerson told reporters.
The U.S. Department of Commerce is imposing duties ranging from 3 per cent to 24 per cent on five Canadian softwood exporters to the United States. Other Canadian lumber producers will pay the weighted average of those rates, which works out to about 20 per cent.
British Columbia sent $4.6-billion worth of softwood lumber to the United States last year – 60 per cent of all of Canada's softwood exports. The sector employs 60,000 people in the province, and roughly 250 forestry product mills will be affected by the new tariff.
Larger companies will be able to pay the cash up front and continue to profitably move their products to the U.S., the destination for half of the province's softwood exports, Mr. Emerson noted.
But the preliminary duties, which will remain in place for four months, could challenge smaller companies that are already in a precarious state because of other factors, such as a shrinking supply of timber.
"Some small independents are going to feel the pain relatively quickly," Mr. Emerson said.
Ms. Clark urged calm.
"Cooler heads need to prevail," the Liberal Leader said outside a lumber mill in Maple Ridge.
Ms. Clark said the government tried to persuade the previous administration of Barack Obama to reach a new deal on softwood, but the U.S. didn't want to negotiate.
"It's my hope that the Trump administration, despite some of the rhetoric that we've seen, because they have been squarely focused on American jobs and growing the economy, will recognize that choking off the supply of Canadian softwood is only going to kill jobs. It's going to make houses way more expensive and that's going to be a real drag on American economic growth," she added.
John Brink, owner of Brink Forest Products in Prince George, lashed out at the BC Liberal government on Tuesday, saying it has failed to prepare for the renewed trade war with the U.S. which has been brewing since the last trade pact expired in 2015.
"They were asleep at the wheel and this will do immense damage to vulnerable companies," he said.
His firm is one of the secondary manufacturing companies captured in the broadly applied countervailing duty.
The tariff is aimed at Canadian exporters of lumber, but companies such as Brink Forest Products, which produces laminated and finger-jointed lumber products from the wood waste of other mills, will pay the same duty. Mr. Brink said his mid-sized company, which employs 350 people, should be okay but the province has failed to provide the kind of support the already-struggling industry needs.
Stephen Hunt, director for the United Steelworkers in Western Canada, which represents about 20,000 mill workers in B.C., said the Clark government has ignored his union's suggestions to protect jobs.
He said more support for secondary manufacturing and a curtailment of raw log exports to the U.S. would help.
"The more we process the logs here in B.C., the better."
Susan Yurkovich, president of the BC Lumber Trade Council, said she expects the federal and provincial governments to arrange support for forestry workers that may be "transitioned" if the trade dispute drags on. But she said in the short term, robust lumber prices and a low Canadian dollar will offer a buffer for B.C.'s industry.
Ms. Clark, who spoke to reporters while she visited a lumber mill in Maple Ridge, said she set election campaigning aside on Tuesday to meet with her cabinet to discuss how to press for a deal with Washington.
"I'm not scared of those guys. We're going to fight and we are going to get a good deal for B.C."
She said she will work with Ottawa to ensure the needed supports are in place for displaced workers in the event of job impacts, and she said she would accelerate the diversification of B.C. forest products and markets, and authorize advance purchases of B.C. lumber for provincial housing projects. But John Horgan, the B.C. NDP Leader, accused Ms. Clark and her government of not being proactive in seeking an updated softwood agreement.
During a campaign appearance in Burnaby on Tuesday, Mr. Horgan said he would go to Washington within 30 days of becoming premier if voters elect an NDP government on May 9.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, speaking to the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Club, said the issue has lasted for decades and is not about subsidies in Canada, but rather about restricting supply and increasing profits "for a few in the U.S at the expense of home builders and potential homeowners."
He told the Canadian Club: "There are days when the Americans make it difficult to have good relations with them."
In a subsequent scrum with reporters, Mr. Mulroney said the issue has been around for about 35 years and he is confident Canadian negotiators can resolve the situation.
While the former prime minister said softwood is a federal matter, he noted the decision by the B.C. government to appoint Mr. Emerson to work on the file was wise.
"She couldn't have done better," he said. "He's outstanding and he can enhance the position of the Canadian team by bringing the British Columbia position and perspective to the national bargaining team."