British Columbia

B.C. Liberals 'asleep at the switch' on softwood lumber, says NDP leader

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan says more needs to be done to protect forest industry jobs in the wake of a U.S. International Trade Commission preliminary finding that Canadian softwood products have harmed American producers.

John Horgan says more needs to be done to protect forest industry jobs

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan says premier Christy Clark needs to prioritize the province's forestry industry, as United Steelworkers Local 2009 president Manjit Sidhu looks on. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan is attacking what he perceives as inaction from B.C. Premier Christy Clark when it comes to defending jobs in the province's forestry industry.

The criticism comes in the wake of a preliminary finding by the U.S. International Trade Commission  that Canadian softwood lumber products have materially harmed American producers.

The decision raises the prospect of duties being levied on U.S.-bound B.C. wood.

"The softwood lumber agreement has reached a critical stage," said Horgan at a media event on Tuesday. "We can anticipate in the months ahead a significant duty put in place that will materially affect and adversely affect communities and workers right across British Columbia."

Since 2001, 150 mills have closed and 30,000 fewer people are working in B.C.'s forestry industry, according to Horgan.

The New Democrat leader said the B.C. Liberal government "appears to be asleep at the switch," continuing its preoccupation with liquefied natural gas, rather than promoting the forestry industry.

"[Christy Clark has] been focusing on an industry that does not exist in British Columbia, while a critical industry in B.C. has been shrinking and shrinking and shrinking," said Horgan.

Donald Trump and trade

Horgan said he's concerned about a new era of trade negotiations under the incoming Donald Trump administration.

"I expect ... that we're going to have a very aggressive position from Mr. Trump. He's talked about reopening the free trade agreement, which softwood was explicitly excluded from back in the 1980s and 1990s when NAFTA came forward," he said.

"We've seen the rhetoric and we're going to see the reality after the inauguration."

"I have not seen any meaningful process put in place by Christy Clark, other than periodically saying it's a high priority for her," said Horgan. "There's no evidence that it's been a high priority for her and her government and the consequences for workers and the consequences for communities are grave."

Horgan said he's optimistic that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shuffled his cabinet in anticipation of the Trump administration.

"At the federal level, Justin Trudeau has completely reshaped his trade team, has completely reshaped his external affairs team to meet the new challenge of an incoming Trump administration," he said, accusing the provincial government of failing to recognize that the forestry industry "deserves our absolute priority attention."

Horgan said negotiators should be using other issues like the Columbia River Treaty to get what they want on the softwood lumber issue.

Province says it's standing up for workers

Labour Minister Shirley Bond released a statement in response to Horgan's criticism.

In it, Bond said, "On the softwood file, we have been clear we will continue to stand up for forestry workers and fight any attempts to penalize our hard-working sector." 

"We are working with the forest industry and federal government to — once again — support B.C.'s forestry sector."

The statement also said since the introduction of the B.C. Jobs Plan, the province has created more than 191,000 jobs, with the majority of those being full-time.

Bond's statement also mentioned China and said that marketing efforts there resulted in a 2,000 per cent increase in B,C, softwood lumber exports from 2003 to 2014.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker