An estimated 500 forestry workers and supporters from across the Maritimes gathered in Saint John on Monday to urge the federal government to demand a softwood lumber deal with the United States "before any more jobs are lost" due to countervailing duties and pending "anti-dumping" tariffs.

Their union, Unifor, held a rally at Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd. on the city's west side at 3 p.m. — one of five simultaneous events held across the country.

"The federal government's recent aid package for the industry was important, but the most important outcome is a negotiated softwood lumber agreement with the U.S. that benefits Canadian communities," Jerry Dias, Unifor's national president, said in a statement.

"With the right choices and strong action, Canada's forestry industry can continue to have a key role in our economy."

Seeking return to exemptions

Jim Irving

Jim Irving, co-CEO of J.D. Irving, Limited, spoke at the rally. (Rachel Cave/CBC)

Earlier this month, the Canadian government announced $867 million in loans, loan guarantees and other aid for the forestry industry, workers and communities impacted by recent U.S. duties on Canadian softwood lumber exports.

But the U.S. administration is now expected to announce "anti-dumping" tariffs on June 23 that could add another 10 per cent to the duties, which range from three per cent to 24 per cent.

New Brunswick and other provincial governments have warned the levies could lead to mill closures and job losses.

'We need to maintain the historic exclusion … because we're right.' - Jim Irving, J.D. Irving Ltd.

Jim Irving, co-CEO of J.D. Irving, Limited, told the workers in Saint John they are living proof the issue is about more than softwood and lumber.

It's about Maritime families, he said, speaking publicly for the first time about U.S. President Donald Trump's stance on softwood lumber.

Irving called for the return of the long-standing exemption on border taxes on softwood lumber exports from New Brunswick.

"We need to maintain the historic exclusion … because we're right," he said.

The U.S. introduced the duties on Canadian softwood lumber exports in April, following an investigation by the U.S. Commerce Department.

U.S. lumber companies claim Canadian companies have an unfair advantage with preferential access to Crown-owned lands that charge lower stumpage fees. Countervailing duties are used to level the playing field.

All of New Brunswick's lumber producers were hit with tariffs of almost 20 per cent, with the exception of J.D. Irving, Limited.

The province's largest forestry company managed to secure a tariff rate of three per cent after it applied in January for a voluntary investigation of its operations by U.S. officials and submitted thousands of pages of documents to support its case.

At least 1 closure

Up to 25 New Brunswick sawmills owned by 14 companies could suffer in the trade dispute, according to the provincial government.

Danny Stillwell told CBC News in April he planned to close his Hainesville Sawmill Ltd., northwest of Fredericton, for at least six months, putting six employees temporarily out of work, rather than pay thousands of dollars per load on his eastern white cedar shipments to Maine.

Stillwell, who has been in the industry 10 years, said 100 per cent of the rough cedar lumber that he's purchased is private wood, which is why he felt he shouldn't be targeted for duties. 

Brady Moore, president of Local 219 in Nackawic, said Monday he hasn't heard of any other closures in his area yet.

"I'm sure it's going to be a trickle-down effect if we don't get somewhere with this agreement," he said.

'Many, many ups and downs'

 Lana Payne, the Unifor Atlantic regional director, said a long-term solution that protects Canadian jobs is needed.

"This is a sector that has been through so much — many, many ups and downs, a lot of downsizing the past two decades," Payne said. "And they've just been rebuilding. We've had mills reopening. They've had a new lease on life.

"We've got a lot of members here today who were in mills that were closed for many years and now have reopened. They're supporting their communities. So this is very, very critical to dozens and dozens of communities across the Atlantic region."

Softwood Lumber 20170425

For every forestry job, 1.5 jobs are created elsewhere in the economy, according to Unifor. In total, forestry is responsible for more than half a million Canadian jobs, the union said. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Forestry provides 202,000 direct jobs across the country, including 20,000 in Atlantic Canada, according to Unifor.

In New Brunswick, the industry employs about 22,000 and contributes more than $1.45 billion to the provincial economy, officials have said.

David Wilkins, New Brunswick's new special envoy to the United States on the softwood lumber tariff dispute, has said he will seek a return of the exemption for the province.

The government of Brian Gallant hired Wilkins, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, in May on a one-year contract for nearly $658,000 Cdn to assist with lobbying efforts and provide advice.

Wilkins helped resolve a previous softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the U.S. within 15 months of becoming ambassador.

Mike Legere, executive director, Forest NB

Mike Legere, executive director of Forest NB, was one of several speakers at the Saint John rally Monday afternoon. (Rachel Cave/CBC)

Unifor Atlantic regional chair Ian Hutchison encouraged workers and supporters Monday to call their members of Parliament. Elected politicians can ignore one person, he said, but not hundreds.

Mike Legere, executive director of Forest NB, told them to, "Keep up the fight."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week Canada and the United States remain "quite far apart" on negotiating a softwood lumber settlement.

The federal government's aid package for the softwood lumber industry includes $500 million in the form of loans and loan guarantees, plus an additional $260 million to:

  • Support efforts to expand overseas markets.
  • Help Indigenous communities improve their forestry sectors.
  • Temporarily extend the maximum period for work-sharing agreements to 76 from 38 to reduce layoffs.
  • Help affected workers upgrade their skills and transition to new opportunities.

Other speakers and guests at the Saint John rally included: Jerome Pelletier, vice-president of J.D. Irving sawmills and chairman of NB Lumber Producers, and forestry worker Daniel Poitras.

Three simultaneous events were held in Quebec, at the Unifor Local 3057 office in Amos, the Baie-Comeau City Hall and at Resolute Forest Products in Jonquière. The fourth rally was in Ontario at Resolute Forest Products' Thunder Bay location.

Unifor is Canada's largest union in the private sector, representing more than 310,000 workers.

With files from Rachel Cave