On softwood lumber, Canada and the United States still 'far apart'

Canada and the United States remain "far apart" on several important points concerning a new agreement on softwood lumber, according to the Canadian government's chief negotiator.

Canada's chief negotiator says officials preparing for the possibility that no deal will be reached

The governments of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama, shown in June at theNorth American leaders' summit in Ottawa, have been working toward a new softwood lumber deal. But Canada's chief negotiator says the two sides 'remain far apart on several key issues.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada and the United States remain "far apart" on several important points concerning a new agreement on softwood lumber, according to the Canadian government's chief negotiator.

Testifying before the House of Commons committee on international trade on Thursday, Martin Moen, an official with the department of Global Affairs, said there have been a dozen face-to-face meetings and numerous teleconferences between Canadian and American officials.

But, he added, the two sides have yet to agree on the structure and details of market share, appropriate exclusions, the treatment of high-value products, anti-circumvention provisions and joint market development.

"Although discussions have been constructive and have led to a better understanding of each party's positions and concerns, Canada and the U.S., I have to be honest, we do remain far apart on several key issues," Moen told MPs. "There are considerable gaps that will need to be bridged in order for a new agreement to be concluded."

The rare summer committee meeting was called at the request of opposition MPs seeking an update on negotiations.

The agreement expired in October 2015 and the governments of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama have been working to achieve a new deal by this October.

The issue was the source of a tense exchange during discussions involving the prime minister and president during the North American leaders' summit in Ottawa in June. 

Moen said the next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 25 and officials "continue to maintain an intensive pace of engagement."

While work towards a deal will continue, Canadian officials are preparing for the possibility no deal will be reached by Oct. 12.

"Canadian stakeholders continue to tell us, very clearly, that no deal is better than a bad deal," Moen explained. "So we need to be prepared for the possibility that a new agreement may not be concluded and that Canada will be forced back, potentially, this is a risk, into a trade risk investigation and then any litigation that we choose following that."

Liberal MPs on the trade committee voted together to defeat a motion that would have called on the federal government to convene a roundtable discussion including the provinces and industry representatives to discuss Canada's approach to the negotiations.

Conservative MP Todd Doherty, a member of the committee, says he's concerned that there is not a consensus about what Canada should be seeking and that not all industry voices are being heard by the government.

"I think the best way of moving forward to protect Canadian jobs and industry is to get people around the table," Doherty says. "Because right now, regardless of what's being said by the government, there is concern, there is division and there's confusion."

A spokesman for International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland stressed the government's efforts toward reaching a deal.

"The international trade minister, her American counterpart, and their teams have been meeting diligently – and continue to do so. We are also meeting intensively on softwood lumber with our provincial governments, stakeholders, and producers," Alex Lawrence said in a statement.

"Since October 19, 2015, the government has embarked on an extensive consultation process with softwood lumber stakeholders across the country. Departmental officials have held conference calls and/or meetings on a regular basis with provincial and territorial governments, industry representatives, and other stakeholders. In recent months the level of engagement has intensified and calls are now being held on a bi-weekly basis."

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.