Steelworkers heartened by Trudeau's Hamilton stop on steel and aluminum solidarity tour

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Hamilton Tuesday to visit the city's two biggest steel producers and show solidarity with workers in an industry threatened by possible American tariffs.

Trudeau took questions after a tour of ArcelorMittal Dofasco Tuesday afternoon

Justin Trudeau said at ArcelorMittal Dofasco that he's confident Canada can reach a NAFTA deal with the U.S. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was a splashy visit heavy on questions and light on answers, but some Hamilton steelworkers say they feel better about their jobs now that Justin Trudeau has come to visit them.

I was just happy someone is paying attention.- Howard Holt, Hamilton steelworker for 28 years

About 60 orange-clad steelworkers flanked prime minister during his photo op at ArcelorMittal Dofasco Tuesday afternoon.

Some of them said afterward that they've been feeling anxious about the future, but Trudeau caring enough to visit is a good sign.

"The fact that he came here speaks a thousand words, in my opinion," said Kelly Barichello, a steelworker for about three years.

Steelworker Kelly Barichello gets a selfie with Trudeau Tuesday. She says she was heartened to know the prime minister is paying attention. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"We know he will lead us in the right direction," said Sagarika Paul, who's worked at ArcelorMittal Dofasco for a year. "We're pretty confident about the future of this company and our careers."

Trudeau visited ArcelorMittal Dofasco and Stelco as part of a steel tour that includes Sault Ste. Marie and Regina.

His visit comes at a nail-biting time for the steel industry.

U.S. President Donald Trump has exempted Canada from a 25-per-cent tariff he plans to lay on imported steel. But he left the door open for penalties if ongoing negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) don't satisfy him.

The Prime Minister was in Hamilton on Tuesday 0:40

As many as 40,000 local jobs could be affected if the tariffs were to apply to Hamilton steel. The steel industry was also responsible for nearly seven million tonnes of cargo, including raw materials, in and out of Hamilton's port last year – the largest category of cargo by far.

Canada is the United States' largest foreign provider of steel and aluminum, with about 85 per cent of Canadian exports being directed to that country.

Trudeau held a roundtable with union and industry leaders Tuesday. He also visited the West Town Bar and Grill on Locke Street.

The visit, Trudeau told CHCH, is "about reassuring the workers that we have their backs. These tariffs are certainly not their fault." 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with workers during a visit to Stelco Hamilton Works in Hamilton on Tuesday. (Tara Walton/Canadian Press)

He declined, however, to name specific ways the government will support those workers, should tariffs be imposed.

"We have lots of levers. Let's not get ahead of ourselves," he said. "Right now we have no tariffs on. We're fine. Let's see how this evolves."

Asked on Monday what he would do if Trump changed course and slapped duties on Canada, Trudeau said, "we'll see when we get to that point."

Trudeau poses for a selfie with steelworkers at ArcelorMittal Dofasco. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Trudeau said Tuesday afternoon that his government is talking with customs officials and industry players to make sure foreign companies don't dump their steel in Canada as a back door into the U.S. market.

"That's a concern that we share with Americans," he said, "and we are going to keep ensuring that Canadian steel is Canadian steel."

He also said his government has strengthened the criteria around the Investment Canada Act to make sure U.S. and foreign companies buying Canadian steel companies don't buy them and shed the jobs.

Trudeau met with local politicians, steel union executives and MPs in a roundtable at the Sheraton in downtown Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"We know that global investment is good for the growth of the Canadian economy," he said. "We just have to make sure it's also good for our workers and our community."

Trudeau's tour also included a Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum plant in Saguenay, about 250 kilometres north of Quebec City. 

Howard Holt, a 28-year steelworker, said the tariff issue was "starting to look like it was going to be a problem." So he was heartened by Trudeau's visit.

"I was just happy someone is paying attention," he said. "Obviously, that's very important to us."

Gary Howe, president of United Steelworkers Local 1005, and Ian Hamilton from the Hamilton Port Authority listen to Trudeau at a roundtable. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

With files from CBC Politics