June 26, 2017

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Former Manitoba premier to swing axe for Alberta's softwood lumber industry

OTTAWA - A former Manitoba premier and one-time Canadian ambassador to the United States has been tabbed to play hardball for Alberta's softwood lumber industry in Washington.

Gary Doer is the fourth heavy hitter hired by a provincial government to lobby on their behalf on the softwood file but he says the goal isn't negotiating individual deals for provinces, but for a team Canada approach to get a negotiated agreement for all.

Former Canadian ambassador to the United States Gary Doer speaks about Canada/US relations after the election of Donald Trump as US president elect at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Winnipeg, Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Doer has been tabbed to play hardball for Alberta's softwood lumber industry in Washington.THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Former Canadian ambassador to the United States Gary Doer speaks about Canada/US relations after the election of Donald Trump as US president elect at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Winnipeg, Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Doer has been tabbed to play hardball for Alberta's softwood lumber industry in Washington.THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

"We're going to try to be as effective as we can and use our own unique contacts with the United States but at the same time at a the end of the day it's going to be an agreement between Canada and the United States," he told The Canadian Press in a phone interview.

"All of us can put leverage on to get that agreement, particularly with customers."

Last October, Quebec hired Raymond Chretien, who was Canada's ambassador in Washington between 1994 and 2000, to represent it in the softwood negotiations.

In February, British Columbia brought on former Conservative international trade and foreign affairs minister David Emerson to be its special envoy on the file. Ontario hired former international trade minister Jim Peterson as its softwood lead in late April.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is leading the negotiations at the federal level.

On April 28, the U.S. Department of Commerce began slapping import tariffs of three to 24 per cent on softwood lumber imports from Canada. The U.S. administration alleges Canada's wood comes mostly from Crown land and governments sell the wood at artificially low prices, thereby providing an unfair advantage to Canadian companies.

This is the fifth time since 1981 that Canada and the U.S. have argued over softwood and Canada has won most of its international trade and U.S. legal challenges against softwood duties. The latest softwood agreement reached in 2006 expired in 2015 but there was a year's grace period before the U.S. could take legal action.

As soon as that grace period ended, the U.S. Lumber Coalition asked for action, and the U.S. Department of Commerce initial investigation was completed in April. The U.S. is expected in June to add anti-dumping duties to the countervailing duties.

The impact on Canada's forestry industry is already being felt. Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products, one of the biggest forestry companies in Canada, issued temporary layoff notices to 1,282 employees last week. Resolute is cutting shifts at sawmills and planing operations, some for six weeks and others indefinitely. Two more sawmills will have production halted entirely for one or two weeks later this month.

A spokesman for Resolute said Monday the immediate impact on the industry is largely because of volatility in market pricing thanks to the duties, and the fact that some U.S. customers had built up some supply in anticipation of the duties.

Doer said the critical element to getting another negotiated agreement is finding, working with and giving a louder voice to the American interests which are hurt by the duties. Those include furniture makers, home builders, and home renovation companies which Doer says are completely opposed to the duties because it pushes their costs up.

"To get what we got last time, we did it with allies in the United States," Doer said.

"That's the crucial part. And we do have allies. And they're customers. Customers don't have the voice that some of the special interest groups do in Washington. It's our job to make sure the broader voices are heard in the United States."

Doer is a senior business adviser at Dentons global law firm where he works on cross-border legal matters. Alberta will pay Dentons $10,000 a month for Doer's services.

Doer served as Manitoba's premier from 1999 to 2009 and was ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2016. He said he was involved in the softwood negotiations prior to the last deal on a peripheral level with Manitoba's relatively small share of the softwood market, but as Canada's ambassador in Washington was more heavily involved when the deal was extended for two years.

-follow @mrabson on Twitter.

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