‘Everything is on the table’: Alberta communities react to U.S. softwood lumber tariffs

File photo. High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer worries the lumber industry will be paralyzed by the uncertainty caused by recent tariffs.
High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer worries the lumber industry will be paralyzed by the uncertainty caused by recent tariffs imposed by the U.S. Ed Kaiser / Edmonton Journal

Alberta’s forestry communities are in an impossible spot after new tariffs were imposed by the United States on softwood lumber exports.

With job losses looming, municipalities that rely on the forestry industry are crying out for support — but that support could be seen as further subsidies and invite more trade actions.

Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier said he spoke to his federal and provincial colleagues on Thursday and the response is a work in progress.

“We’re making sure we don’t give any particular tools in the Americans’ tool box that they can use against us,” said Carlier. “We really have to be quite careful about whatever support we do.”

Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie said about one-fifth of his community is employed by one of the three big lumber mills in the area and estimates that another one-fifth of the community is employed indirectly by the industry.

“Right now we don’t believe that Canada has a subsidy issue that the Americans are claiming we do and it’s been proven in court. But if the federal government comes to our aid somehow, they might actually create a real issue,” said Rennie.

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said the government can’t support the lumber companies directly but can find creative ways to support the workers.

After massive layoffs in the oil and gas industry, the federal government offered beefed up employment insurance benefits to workers in 12 affected regions, including some in Alberta.

That’s a model that could work for workers affected by the lumber tariffs and wouldn’t result in trade action, said Tombe.

Natural buffer

Many communities in Alberta thrive on both forestry and oil and gas, which helps them ride out volatility in both industries. With the energy industry suffering from the recent shock in world oil prices recently, forestry had largely been carrying the load.

“Over the last 18 months forestry was doing quite well. These new tariff announcements obviously have us quite shocked and very concerned,” said Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman.

As far as diversification is concerned “everything is on the table,” said Warman.

That means looking to Asia for new markets to sell the lumber and diversifying industries in the town so such a massive chunk of the population isn’t affected.

Premier Rachel Notley recently returned from a trade trip to Asia, with a focus on opening up those markets to Albertan exports.

“That’s a huge market that has been under-tapped over the last decade. It’s something that we have to pursue and pursue it aggressively to see what kind of trade agreements we can make with them,” said Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak.

For now, the industry and affected communities have to wait for the issue to play out through a lengthy litigation process. Canada has triumphed in the four previous cases since 1982, but it’s scant consolation to communities that can’t be supported for fear of more trade action.

High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer worries that the industry will be paralyzed by the uncertainty.

“If I’m a logger in High Level am I going to buy a logging truck? Probably not,” said McAteer.

“This is just one more nail in the coffin.”

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