The Toronto Sun





Shortly after 3 p.m. today, federal Trade Minister David Emerson and his U.S. counterpart, Susan Schwab, are scheduled to meet in the ninth-floor boardroom of Foreign Affairs headquarters here to officially ink a controversial deal ending the longstanding softwood lumber dispute.

While the agreement still requires approval in Parliament, the Bloc Quebecois has said it will vote with the Conservatives, all but guaranteeing easy passage.

The deal will return to Canadian lumber exporters about $4 billion of the roughly $5 billion the U.S. has collected in import duties on softwood products since 2003.

At the same time, Canada has agreed to abandon the various free trade rulings that found the U.S. duties were illegal, and the Americans are dropping their own myriad of counter legal actions that could have gone on for years.

Proponents of the agreement are hyping it as the best that could be achieved, and a diplomatic triumph for the Conservative government, in large part the product of Stephen Harper's personal cachet with George W. Bush.

On the flipside, critics are panning the deal as nothing less than a billion-dollar sellout to the Americans, an abdication of Canada's rights under the free trade agreement -- all so the Conservatives can boast they were able to resolve the decades-old dispute.

(For the record, good deal or bad, journalists who have been stuck covering this tedious tiff forever -- yours truly for the past 24 painful years -- are quietly praying for any end to the story as long as it ends.)

There is some truth in both opposing views of the deal.

On the one hand, critics are right -- the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) exists precisely to provide a fair mechanism to settle otherwise politically-charged disputes such as softwood lumber.

According to the latest NAFTA rulings, Canadian producers should be getting back the entire $5 billion in "illegal" U.S. import duties, plus interest, rather than leaving $1 billion in American pockets.

Accepting anything less, critics legitimately argue, is to admit that NAFTA guarantees free trade between Canada and the U.S. -- except where the Americans decide it doesn't. What's next? American-made cars? Steel? Dishwashers?

Still, while the softwood deal is far from perfect, it may well be as good as it gets.

The $4-billion refund leaves $1 billion on the table, but it is still a tidy windfall for Canadian lumber companies.

It's not as though the money is needed to rebuild a decimated industry -- in fact, overall softwood exports to the U.S. have continued to increase to record levels, despite the punitive American tariffs.

Most importantly -- and this is the point Harper has so emphatically impressed on Bush -- with softwood out of the way, Canada-U.S. relations can focus on other more pressing issues.

One way or another, the PM and his Conservative administration have done a commendable job in bringing on board so many disparate industry players, in both countries, in this otherwise intractable dispute.


And, yes, no settlement could have been reached without more than a little help from Harper's new best friend in the White House.

At a private lunch recently, a senior American official confided that Bush had expended "an extraordinary amount of personal and political capital" to gain the critical support for the deal among U.S. legislators and industry.

"He was calling people in from all over the place."

But the official was emphatic that if the Canadian lumber industry had turned thumbs down on the deal, there would have been no more help from the Bush administration.

"And without that," the official said, "you guys would still be writing about softwood lumber for a long, long time."

Thank heavens for small mercies.