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Quebec has put an offer on the table it says should satisfy U.S. complaints about illegal lumber subsidies, but a U.S. industry official called the concessions marginal.

Emerging from a meeting yesterday with U.S. lumber envoy Marc Racicot, Quebec Natural Resources Minister Jacques Brassard said a tentative truce in the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute could be reached by Christmas.

"What we've put on the table is a good base on which to reach an agreement," Mr. Brassard said in Washington, D.C.

The Quebec government says it's ready to sell an unspecified portion of timber from its northern forests at public auctions, similar to the way wood is sold in the United States.

Canadian and U.S. negotiators are meeting in Washington this week in a bid to find a lasting solution to a trade dispute that has dragged on for decades. Since the summer, the United States has hit $10-billion of Canadian lumber exports with preliminary duties totalling more than 32 per cent, alleging a combination of illegal subsidies and dumping.

Quebec accounts for roughly a quarter of all U.S.-bound exports.

Mr. Brassard acknowledged that the reforms he is proposing are "at the margins" of its forestry system and do not constitute a fundamental reform of the way timber is sold in the province.

"The United States recognizes that our system is already based on market prices," he said.

John Ragosta, a lawyer and lobbyist for the Washington-based Coalition For Fair Lumber Imports, said selling a "tiny bit" of scrawny northern forest falls way short of eliminating the subsidies identified by the U.S. Commerce Department.

"They need to increase dramatically the amount of timber sold at auction," he said.

The U.S. case rests on allegations that Canadian provinces are charging lumber companies too little to cut wood on Crown land and that Canadian producers are selling wood in the United States at less than it costs to produce.

Meanwhile, Ontario Natural Resources Minister John Snobelen has put to rest persistent rumours that the province would break ranks with other provinces and attempt to strike a separate lumber deal with the United States.

"I continue to agree with [Canadian Trade Minister]Pierre Pettigrew in searching for a Canada-wide solution," Mr. Snobelen said in an interview.

He did concede that Ontario probably has less far to go to meet U.S. concerns than do the other major provinces.

"Our circumstances are much different than [those of]British Columbia or Quebec," he said.

On Monday, Mr. Pettigrew conceded that Christmas may be too soon to reach a deal.

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