Trade minister downplays fear of new U.S. tariff

An American effort to reduce cargo going into the U.S. from Canadian ports is in its infancy, and it's too soon to say what could come of it, International Trade Minister Ed Fast says.
International Trade Minister Edward Fast rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 21, 2011. Fast says an American effort to cut cargo going into the U.S. from Canadian ports is in its infancy and it's too soon to say what could come of it. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Trade Minister Ed Fast must meet with his U.S. counterpart to head off talk of a new tariff for goods shipped through Canada and into America, the head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said Monday.

Fast says the attempt by the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission to add a tariff to cargo shipped into Canadian ports and across the U.S. border is in its infancy. He says it's too soon to say what could come of it.

But Perrin Beatty, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, says the government should intervene very forcefully to make it clear that the move would run contrary to U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's attempts to ease trade.

Fast should meet with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Beatty says, and Canadian embassy staff in Washington should be meeting with American authorities.

"I think we need to make it clear that Canada will not willingly accept an attack upon Canadian ports and railroads," Beatty said.

"I think we should be trying to head off improper action on the part of the Americans in the first place. If we’re forced to pursue this under international trade law, we’ll have to do that, but our goal should be to prevent something from happening, which is damaging to the trade relationship between Canada and the U.S. and which is also damaging to consumers in both countries."

A spokesman for Fast refused to say whether he is talking to Kirk about the issue, but insisted Fast is "standing up for Canadian businesses." He refused to elaborate.

Fast said Monday the government is still considering remarks made by the chairman of the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission in a speech last week about asking the organization to look at ways to reduce the amount of cargo unloaded in Canadian ports before going on to the U.S. by land.

The chairman, Richard Lidinsky, suggested it could go as far as imposing a tariff on cargo entering the U.S. after coming into a Canadian port.

"We’ve just been made aware of this development. We are following it closely," Fast said in a teleconference from Jakarta, Indonesia, where he's on a trade visit.

"The process is one that we are just familiarizing ourselves with.…We have no idea whether this request is going to go anywhere."

The news comes as Harper has been lauding talks with the U.S. about adjusting border controls to improve trade, as well as increase security, known as Beyond the Border. It also follows news that a Canadian exemption to a Buy American clause has expired, risking some Canadian trade sectors.

Fast says the Canada-U.S. relationship is "strong and mature."

"This most recent development is one that is in its infancy. As I said, we are monitoring the situation. Right now there is no legislation, there is no action that is being proposed. All that’s happening is that the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission has been asked to do a study," he said.

"That commission hasn’t even decided whether to conduct that study. For me to speculate as to where that will go would be premature."