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Opinion Explaining the endless softwood saga to our extraterrestrial neighbours

Looking up at the night sky this week, I thought to myself, "Is there anyone out there? Could they be watching us right now? Oh man, could they please not be watching us right now? Like, seriously, isn't there something on Extraterrestrial Netflix you could be binge watching?"

"Come on, space guys!" I shouted into the endless, cruel (or at least understandably confused) void, "just look away for a sec, we've got a softwood-lumber thing going on here, this really isn't a good time for us."

Then a star fell and so I thought, "Oh! They've heard me!" and I should possibly have taken this as a sign I should stop talking, but I was on a roll.

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"Look, what you have to understand," I cried out to the uncaring heavens, "is that we're not like this all the time. It's just that every five to 10 years or so, Canada and the United States agree to put aside our similarities and bicker over the minutiae of our softwood-lumber trade.

"Seeing how regularly we engage in what looks like such a dry and repetitive ritual, you might think there's some religious significance to the whole thing."

I yelled in the general direction of the Moon, "Perhaps, there's some Space Anthropologist Ph.D. up there explaining that we engage in this act of ceremonial societal flagellation to ensure that the sun keeps rising, or to appease the angry ghosts of dead economists."

"They are a primitive society," I imagine Space Anthropologist Ph.D. saying to his attentive and, I like to think, tentacled students. "They believe this is the only way to keep David Ricardo in his grave."

"Well, I hope you haven't given Egghead ET tenure," I sternly informed the constellation of Orion, "because he's got it all wrong."

"This whole thing is in no way mystically significant. We're not even sure that it's ultimately all that economically significant, seeing as how it keeps ending just about where it started every single time we do it."

This past Tuesday, Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, notified Canada that the United States is slapping a preliminary countervailing duty of 20 per cent on Canadian softwood-lumber imports. The cost of a good fence, courtesy of a good neighbour, just went up a lot for Americans; and about 24,000 Canadian jobs are softwood-lumber- export dependent. About 70 per cent of our softwood exports land in the United States.

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It's not the first time this has happened. This recent softwood scuffle is the result of the 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement expiring. It had brought us all 10 mercifully splinter-free years.

I tried my best to explain this to anyone who might be camping out on the rings of Saturn – I reasoned they could not be any less interested than the average Canadian.

Unfortunately, I kept having to take a break to explain to a very rude police officer that no, I was not causing a public disturbance at 12:30 at night, I was trying to educate the little green (tentacled!) space men on macroeconomics and international forestry relations and of course I had to yell so loudly – Saturn is very far away. With all these stops and starts, I'm not sure I got my message across.

What I'm trying to say here, dear reader, is if you find yourself beamed up into a flying saucer, probed and asked to clarify the role of the World Trade Organization in NAFTA disputes, it might just be my fault. Sorry about that.

"So yeah, no probing!" I shouted at the Butterfly Nebula, "I don't care what those jerks from Betelgeuse have been telling you. Our bark is so-not worse than our bilateral trade agreements."

"Don't interrupt, ominous rumbling of distant thunder," I said, shaking my finger at the ominous rumbling of distant thunder, "I was just getting to the history part."

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"The seeds of the problem first sprouted in 1982, in what I like to call Lumber Spat I: The Phantom Subsidy. Because most Canadian lumber is sourced from Crown land, whereas most U.S. lumber is harvested from private property, it was easy – one might even say simplistic – to label our wood as some sort of Soviet cedar, and the American lumber lobby made pretty much this complaint to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Lumber I ended quietly when the DoC determined that the supposed subsidies were not industry-specific enough to warrant countervailing," I explained to space, because I'm like that.

"But of course, just like the cyclical star locusts of Omega 7, the matter didn't stay solved for long. Just four years later, in 1986, the world, or at least people deeply invested in softwood lumber, was yet again plunged into chaos in what we very imaginatively named Lumber II.

"Lumber III waited until 1991 to pounce and went on to stalk the forests of Canada-U.S. relations for five years before being put to rest by the first Softwood Lumber Agreement.

"Lumber IV: A New Kerfuffle burst onto the scene in 2001 and slowly wound its way through numerous WTO and NAFTA disputes before, at last, ending in the aforementioned 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement.

"The general pattern is that it is eventually recognized by the WTO that the 'stumpage fees' Canadian companies pay when they log on Crown land, as well as other forest-maintenance costs, do not in fact constitute a subsidy. Rather, our stumpage-fee system allows Canada to account for a myriad of issues, ensuring the sustainability of our forestry industry and protecting the wood we hold so dear."

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I was suddenly painfully aware that I was yelling about stumps to what I am absolutely convinced are many multitentacled lifeforms and, what with U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Trade Dispute V about to get a whole lot harder, it might be unwise to open up a war on another front and so I changed my tone.

"Quotas are imposed," I said gently, "the provinces are encouraged to adjust things a bit more to the United States' liking and we all move on, which – yes, hold your space-seahorses, Impatient Octoploids of the Dark Galaxy – brings us to today."

What makes this iteration of the U.S.-Canada Softwood lumber trade dispute novel? What is it about this one that may very well be different from the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Trade Disputes of our youths, from the ones we studied in school, from the ones that cast a long softwood shadow over our lives and that have dominated our front pages since the dawn of the eighties?

It is a fact that to this day in Canada the early paper is referred to as "morning wood."

We have been through it softwood-lumber-wise. We know the drill – the sirens sound like chainsaws, the trenches are lined with fresh-scented cedar, the softwood bunkers are affordable and very pretty to look at, but possibly not all that practical.

So what is it about Softwood Lumber Trade Dispute V: The Empire Strikes Big League that has us all up in soft, woody arms?

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Well, you see, Enlightened Frog Men of the 45th Millennium (you always ask the best questions), the people of the United States have decided to elect as their president a man with the mindset of a nine-year-old who has been told he can plan his own birthday party.

It looks pretty much like this:

"I want a Spider-Man party!"

"No, wait, pirates!"

"No, no, no, Spider Pirates!"

For several hours, the leader of the free world talked about how a "beautiful piece of chocolate cake" substantially improved the experience of ordering a cruise-missile strike.

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Not long ago, we in Canada heard how totally different we were from the "very unfair" Mexico, but then, I imagine, someone starts talking wood at the dinner table at Mar-a-Lago and the man demands a beaver pinata at his festivities.

Some people have suggested that President Donald Trump is choosing to escalate the hundred-year U.S.-Canada softwood lumber dispute and threatening and then unthreatening to blow up NAFTA because he just wants to have done something in his first hundred days in office. These people are what we on Earth call "quite possibly right."

"Like the rest of the world," I wrapped things up for my alien audience, "we're not entirely sure what we're dealing with at this point in history, how far the bluster will go, so please, make some room up there, my tentacled space-neighbours. This might be the first U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Trade Dispute to go nuclear."

The U.S. is imposing tariffs averaging 20% on Canadian softwood exports
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