THUNDER BAY – The national labour minister says a financial aid package for the softwood lumber industry under attack by American duties on Canadian exports will help protect the “backbone” of the Northern Ontario economy.
The federal government earlier this week announced $867 million through loans and loan guarantees to help soften the costs of the duties – which range between three and more than 24 per cent – of added costs on Canadian products entering the U.S. market.
But Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu said any kind of decline affects more than just those directly employed by softwood lumber producers.
“When the forestry industry in particular suffers, for small and rural communities it can have a really negative spin-off effect where it’s not just the people working directly in the industry but it’s also small businesses, mom and pop shops even to the point where municipalities have trouble sustaining themselves if the population base gets too low,” Hajdu said.
“Those are the kinds of stories that need to be told to Canadians at large and that’s why we’re fighting so hard because across the country there are stories like that. Northern Ontario is uniquely dependent upon forestry but there are many other parts of the country that are equally dependent.”
Last month, Ontario Forest Industries Association president Jamie Lim addressed the Northern Ontario Municipal Association conference and called on Ottawa to implement a loan guarantee program.
The Conference Board of Canada released a report earlier this week warning the duties would result in $1.7 billion in duties paid per year, potentially costing as many as 2,200 jobs and $700 million in exports.
Hajdu said “the United States is in the wrong,” as they have been every time Canada has successfully appealed the levying of duties to the World Trade Organization.
But even though a significant amount of the duties from the last dispute were repaid after its resolution, those costs can threaten the immediate future of businesses.
“We don’t want to get to that point where we’ve seen that kind of damage in the industry again,” Hajdu said. “We know we need to support the industry right now to diversify their markets, to diversify their products and look for opportunities to sustain ourselves while we vigorously defend Canada’s interests and the industry’s interests.”
Unifor national president Jerry Dias applauded the government for implementing the support package.
“The federal government has shown real leadership in protecting good resource jobs," Dias said in a news release. "This is welcome news for dozens of communities that are already feeling the pain of unfair trade sanctions."
The package also includes a component for re-training and skills development for workers wanting to transition to a different industry.
“This could be very useful to employees and families that are looking for opportunities in other fields,” Hajdu said. “Skills training is something we can certainly provide, up-skilling is something that is critical for many families as they look to re-enter the workforce in different fields.”