Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Global Affairs, Published Articles

Trump lumber tariffs cause local concern

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on April 24 to impose a 20 per cent tariff on Canadian lumber was met with stiff opposition from local industry leaders.

“We’re completely opposed to it,” said Brock Mulligan, spokesman for the Alberta Forest Products Association and the Alberta Softwood Lumber Trade Council.

Since 1982, U.S. trade representatives have claimed that the Canadian lumber industry is unfairly subsidized, due to its harvests occurring mainly on public land, whereas it is done mostly on private land in the U.S., Mulligan said.

“We’ve seen this happen before and time and again their allegations have been thrown out by various tribunals, whether it’s NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) or WTO (World Trade Organization). We’re confident that this will happen again, but unfortunately we’re going to have to go through the process,” he said.

The previous agreement on the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber trade expired in October 2015.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak emphasized that this is an ongoing dispute in U.S.-Canada relations, regardless of which president or prime minister is in power.

“The issue of softwood lumber is one we’ve faced now for the fifth time. We’ve weathered the storm before and we will weather it again. It’s just a matter of how long that dispute will continue on,” Chichak said, predicting that that there will be no regional job losses in the short term.

“As this dispute continues, if it’s not resolved, then we will see job losses, not just for our community but across Alberta and Canada,” she said.

The looming threat of job losses underscores the importance of the provincial government coming up with a caribou range plan that is economically and socially feasible, Chichak added.

“A poor range plan compounded by a dispute that continues could have very devastating effects on communities such as Whitecourt and Woodlands County,” she said.

The dispute also underscores the necessity of Canada expanding its market access for lumber beyond the U.S., Chichak said.

According to Canada Trade, China and Japan comprise 20 per cent of Canadian lumber exports.

“This brings a heightened awareness to the importance over the upcoming decade that we really strengthen and encourage industry and our provincial government to look for other markets for lumber, that we don’t rely on the United States in the event that there’s a sixth dispute in the future,” said Chichak.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley recently returned from a 10-day trade mission to China and Japan, for which Chichak expressed her approval.

But there are limits to expanding Canadian access to east Asian markets, said Mulligan.

“With the Russian rouble collapsing recently, not only are they closer to us, but they also have a big currency advantage on us too,” he said.

The Japanese market has always been dependable for high-grade Canadian lumber, but there isn’t a lot of room for growth there, due to its ageing population and slow economic growth, Mulligan said.

Mulligan said the tariff would backfire on the U.S., due to its dependence on Canadian lumber for homebuilding.

“They depend upon having an adequate supply of lumber. The Americans don’t produce enough for their own market and they need Canadian lumber,” he said.

Tariffs would increase the price of a single family home in the U.S. by $1,236, which would push more than 150,000 families out of the housing market, said Mulligan, citing a study from the National Association of Homebuilders.

Countries like Chile and Russia, who were previously too far to access the American market, would be at a competitive advantage with the artificial increase in Canadian prices, he added.

“We’ll probably see a substitution of their products in, but the American consumer will have to pay a higher price,” Mulligan said.

Local MP, MLA weigh in

Conservative MP Arnold Viersen, who represents Whitecourt and the area, emphasized the importance of this dispute to his constituents.

“Softwood lumber, the pulp and paper industry, (and) forestry in general is a big deal in northern Alberta,” said Viersen, noting that 6,000 people in his Westlock-Peace River riding work in the industry.

He agreed with Chichak that this is simply the return of an ongoing dispute that would occur regardless of who’s in charge.

“It’s perhaps different in terms of Donald Trump’s bluster, but it’s the same players at stake,” Viersen said.

He said it’s largely the result of certain union interests in the U.S. who are trying to protect their workers’ employment.

“They’re not that concerned about the end user of the product. They’re worried about their jobs, so basically this is an easy way to protect some of their market share,” said Viersen, who agreed with Mulligan that the move will increase the price of American lumber by restricting the market’s supply.

Viersen said that Trudeau and his Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was previously the international trade minister, should have prepared better for this issue to come up.

“We knew this was coming along. We’ve been through this before,” he said. “It should’ve been top of mind.”

Whitecourt-St. Anne MLA and Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier similarly emphasized the industry’s local vitality.

“Our government stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Alberta’s forest workers, their families and communities that rely on a strong forestry industry,” said Carlier.

He said the Alberta government has been working closely with the federal government, particularly a task force headed by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, to explore the most appropriate course of action.

“All options are on the table,” Carlier said, that the provincial government had anticipated the re-emergence of this dispute.

He cautioned against linking the softwood lumber dispute with other trade issues, such as supply management for dairy farmers.

“There’s a lot of known measures here in the softwood lumber agreement and in other potential disputes there are so many unknowns,” said Carlier.

It’s important to distinguish between the U.S. administration’s tough rhetoric and what actually occurs during negotiations, he said.

“It’s at this point just comments out of the blue that aren’t necessarily tied to any potential negotiations that haven’t even yet started taking place. Once those have taken place, we can have a little more meat and potatoes where we can go and make those gains,” Carlier said.

Data, Published Articles

Whitecourt, Woodlands County growing

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Whitecourt and Woodlands County are both growing, while Mayerthorpe got a bit smaller, according to the most recent census data released Feb. 8.

Whitecourt’s population increased to 10,204 from 9,605 in 2011, when the last census was released — an increase of 6.2 per cent.

However, this is a slight decrease from the municipal census of 2013, which put the town’s population at 10,574, resulting in 370 more people than the 2016 federal survey.

Mayor Maryann Chichak attributed this discrepancy to differing methodologies in gathering census data.

“More visits are done to households to ensure that they’re counted in the municipal census,” she said.

“We did online. We did door-to-door. We’d go back two, three, four times to ensure we got an answer. Unfortunately, with a federal census, they made two or three attempts and if they don’t have a response back, then the houses aren’t counted,” she said.

Chichak estimated that there’s a five per cent variance between municipal and federal numbers.

“When you compare apples to apples, it was nice to see that continued steady growth from the last federal one,” she said.

Mayor pleased with Woodlands’ “healthy” growth

Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie was thrilled that the census showed his municipality’s population increase to 4,574 from 4,306, a growth of 10.4 per cent.

“The Edmonton Journal called themselves the fastest growing city in Canada and their percentage wasn’t a lot higher than ours,” he said.

According to the census, Edmonton grew by 14.8 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

The provincial average for Alberta is 11.6 per cent, making it the fastest growing province. The national average is five per cent.

“We’re a community that’s lucky to be blessed with growth,” said Rennie, calling the population increase “healthy” and “somewhat balanced.”

Mayerthorpe got smaller

But not all towns in Alberta grew from one census to the other.

Mayerthorpe’s population shrank by 5.6 per cent to 1,320, losing 78 people, since the federal census in 2011.

Lac Ste. Anne County, where Mayerthorpe is located, increased its population 6.2 per cent to 10,899 from 10,260 in the same timeframe.

“The population figures are disappointing and they’re not really unexpected,” Mayerthorpe Mayor Kate Patrick said, citing the economic downturn in the oilpatch as a factor in the decrease.

“We have a lot of oil and gas industry workers who lost their jobs in the last year.”

Patrick said that if the census was taken today, she believes the results would be different.

This is why she wants council to take a municipal census, which may not happen until 2018.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Labour, Published Articles

Farm worker rights in Alberta

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) 

Alberta’s NDP government has encountered fierce opposition to its efforts to extend basic workplace safety and labour regulations to the province’s farms and ranches. Prior to the introduction Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, Alberta was the only province where farms were not bound by mandatory occupational health and safety standards. As of January 1, Alberta’s farmers now have the right to refuse unsafe work, receive overtime pay, apply for workers’ compensation in case of injury, and unionize.

The bill, passed by the NDP majority in Alberta’s parliament on December 10, amends four pieces of previous legislation—the Employment Standards Code, Labour Relations Code, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and Workers’ Compensation Regulation—to bring farm workers under the same regulatory regime as other workers. Each of these laws had exemptions for farmers and ranchers. Bill 6 repeals these provisions, applying labour and safety regulations across the board.

The changes were spurred by the death, last October, of three girls on a farm in the Central Alberta hamlet of Withrow. The three sisters, aged 11 to 13, suffocated under a truckload of canola they were playing in. Alberta’s agriculture minister, Oneil Carlier, responded by calling for measures to enhance farm safety with the stated goal of protecting rural children. In late January, Carlier announced the creation of six working groups, made up of a dozen people each, who were to begin developing a rollout plan for Bill 6 at the end of February.

“Years of promises made and promises broken by Conservative premiers is enough,” wrote Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan in November. “Agricultural workers can now expect a minimum wage. Hazards in the workplace will have to be labelled. Workers will have the right to refuse unsafe work without penalty…. In the event that someone dies at work, there will be an investigation.”

Opposition critics and some agricultural associations, on the other hand, challenged the government as trying to impose unnecessary labour laws under the guise of protecting public safety. The legislation also stoked outrage from family farmers who felt their bucolic work methods were being trampled on by a social democratic government few of them voted for. Bill 6 “appeared to disregard the traditional community approach to farming in Alberta, in which family members are active on the farm and neighbours help neighbours with various tasks,” wrote Michael Hughes, a lawyer who advises employers on labour issues, in December.

As a direct response to this criticism, the government amended the bill to preserve family farming. “Alberta farm and ranch producers with paid employees who are not the owner or related to the owner will be affected by Bill 6,” reads a government statement. “This means that family members can continue to contribute to farming operations as they always have and neighbours can still volunteer to help each other out.”

Still, many are calling it a bad communications blunder for the government. Wildrose party leader Brian Jean, who as recently as March 2015 told CBC he supported new farm safety regulations, is using the opportunity to denounce the NDP as anti-democratic. Generally the right in Alberta is using dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the bill to whip up wholesale opposition to the NDP’s policies—namely the carbon tax and a recently wrapped-up oil royalty review.

Though the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA), which represents the province’s farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers, supports the broader goal of enhancing farm safety, it, too, has reservations about the way the bill was rolled out.

“AFA’s position on Bill 6 is that while we welcome some of the changes in the proposed legislation, more consultation and communication are essential,” reads the organization’s website. “The quick implementation schedule and unclear communication about the scope of this legislation has meant a significant learning curve for farmers.”

Bob Barnetson, professor of labour studies at Athabasca University, staunchly supports the bill, which he says represents “a long overdue change that brings Alberta employment law for farm workers into the mainstream.” Barnetson atributes farmers’ opposition to the legislation as a desire to squeeze every bit of profit out of their employees.

“Farmers are no different from any other business owner,” he says. “They typically dislike the additional costs associated with paying workers living wages and offering them safe workplaces. They would rather externalize those costs onto the workers.”

Barneston points out small family farms are untouched by the legislation, but their plight is being used as a wedge issue by the two conservative opposition parties to mask their support for big agribusiness.

“Who’s really affected by Bill 6? There’s about 43,000 farm operations… in Alberta, but only about 13,000 of those have paid workers, so only about 30% of farms are affected by Bill 6, and those tend to be the biggest farms.”

Barnetson concedes the government failed to convince Albertans that the legislation is in the public’s interest. “Much of the opposition to this bill is frankly hysterically misinformed,” he says. “I would think if the NDP could do this again, they would adopt a different communications strategy…. Even the premier has publicly accepted that the communication was bad.”