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Christy Clark vows to take softwood lumber fight to Washington

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark tours FibreCo in North Vancouver, B.C., on April 27, 2017.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark says she will go to Washington to defend her province's interests in softwood lumber against attacks from the Donald Trump administration after the B.C. election if she is still premier, a trek her counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan have already made.

Ms. Clark has spent the days since new punitive tariffs on Canada's softwood-lumber exports to the United States were announced earlier this week telling voters she is the only political leader on the ballot who will stand up to the United States and get a good deal for British Columbia.

But she has faced criticism because she has not been to the U.S. capital to lobby on British Columbia's behalf since April of 2015.

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The most recent Canada-U.S. softwood lumber agreement expired later in 2015, and a temporary extension of that deal ended last fall, just before the highly protectionist Mr. Trump took office.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley visited Washington in early February, while Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was there at the beginning of April.

Ms. Clark appointed David Emerson, a former B.C. forestry executive who also served as federal trade minister, her special envoy on the softwood file in mid-February.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said earlier this week that a premier or other senior provincial official can be helpful, but not pivotal, in making a difference in trade talks between Canada and the United States.

"Premiers, ministers and members of Parliament can be useful in talking to their vis-à-vis, the governors of the northwest, the senators from the northwest and so on," Mr. Mulroney told reporters in Vancouver on Tuesday after a speech to the Vancouver wing of the Canadian Club.

"But whether the premier of New Brunswick, for example, who is involved in this, whether his presence in Washington would make a considerable difference? It's usually the federal government, of course, that Washington wants to deal with, the prime minister, the minister of finance, the minister of international trade. That's it. That's all because they don't have the time or the interest in meeting all kinds of other people," he said.

But Carlo Dade, director of the Centre on Trade and Investment Policy for the Canada West Foundation, said the BC Liberal government has failed to nurture its relationships in the United States, and that will make it tougher to protect the province's interests.

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"So as Premier of B.C., you absolutely have got to go down in the States," he said. "And you have got to go down and establish those relationships before there is a crisis. Because when a crisis hits, it is too late."

Ms. Clark, speaking on Thursday at a North Vancouver wood-pellet facility, told reporters it is important that she make the trip to Washington. Like Mr. Mulroney, she noted Canada is the lead negotiator with the United States and she said she has raised the matter repeatedly with the Prime Minister and the U.S. ambassador. She has also pledged to establish a permanent posting in Washington for Mr. Emerson.

The Liberal Leader used a mountain of wood pellets as a backdrop deliver a message to voters, for the third day running, that she is fighting for the B.C. softwood industry.

It's the same message she delivered at a sawmill earlier this week, and again during the televised leaders' debate on Wednesday night. Ms. Clark told viewers she alone among the provincial leadership candidates could secure a good deal on softwood: "I'm going to be tough. I will be strong. I will be calm and resilient in making sure that we get the best, fairest deal for B.C. when it comes to softwood."

Hours before the debate, she announced she has asked Ottawa to impose a ban on U.S. thermal coal shipped through British Columbia's ports. The federal government has promised only to consider her request, but she said on Thursday that B.C. will act unilaterally if Ottawa doesn't.

"We also have the power in British Columbia under our Emergency Program Act to levy an onerous fee that would be so high on the shipment of American coal that it would no longer make any sense, because you could not make any money shipping it through British Columbia," she said.

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"We are going to protect B.C. jobs," she added. "I am not going to be a sucker for Donald Trump and accept the bad deals the Americans have offered so far."

The "bad deal" she was referring to was offered under the former Obama administration, and she said it would reduce Canada's share of the softwood-lumber market in the United Statse by one-third of current levels. The impact of such a deal would be felt most harshly in B.C., which makes up 60 per cent of all of Canada's softwood experts to the United States. Last year, B.C. sold $4.6-billion worth of softwood to the U.S.

NDP leader John Horgan criticized Ms. Clark during the debate for inaction on the softwood file, and vowed he would quickly make the trip to Washington if his party wins the May 9 election.

"You've been absent on the file, Ms. Clark. The deal expired two years ago. Two years ago. And now, two weeks before an election, you want workers in B.C. to believe you care about this question."

Steve Hunt, regional head of the United Steelworkers union which represents 20,000 B.C. forestry workers, held his applause for Ms. Clark's threat of retaliation.

"I don't think it's going to be good for any workers. It's churlish," he said. "It's an insignificant hit to the United States. If she wants to play in the big leagues, she should stop shipping raw logs to the United States."

With a report from Ian Bailey

Video: B.C. NDP leader defends temperament after debate (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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