Sawmill conveyor on Vancouver Island. (Black Press)

GUEST COLUMN: John Horgan has gone missing in U.S. lumber dispute

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson questions payments to Washington governor

By Andrew Wilkinson

For more than a century, British Columbia’s success has been directly tied to our forest industry.

While pessimists describe the industry as an old-timer nearing retirement, the reality tells a different story. Forestry touches almost every community across our province. It impacts more British Columbian families than any other industry.

For those reasons, the softwood lumber dispute is B.C.’s single most important trade and economic issue. Our forest industry accounts for half of Canadian trade. The dispute hurts people on both sides of the border. British Columbia’s government should be vocal about the dispute – even to the point of obnoxiousness. If this trade dispute was over car manufacturing, Canada would look to Ontario. If it involved wheat, we would turn to Saskatchewan. For forestry, British Columbia has a duty to play a leadership role.

But what have we seen in terms of leadership from the current government? Aside from initial bravado from Premier John Horgan about how easy the softwood lumber dispute would be for the NDP to solve, we’ve seen and heard precious little. The government has been silent on softwood lumber here at home, but even more disappointingly, south of the border.

No wonder poll after poll shows that Americans and their legislators know nothing of this issue. It is the Premier’s job to fight for our forestry workers. The very person who should be highlighting this issue is instead arm in arm with American politicians and smiling in photo ops. He wants you to think that everything in the U.S.-B.C. relationship is fine.

It’s not fine. The NDP’s absence on this file is not fine.

While the premier of the largest lumber exporting province in the country enjoyed a friendly visit with Washington Governor Jay Inslee, other Canadian leaders were left holding the bag. Most recently it was the premier of New Brunswick trying to gain attention for the softwood lumber dispute in Washington D.C. You can’t get further away from B.C. and still be in Confederation.

Maybe our premier was able to extract a good deal to make his coziness with Inslee worthwhile? Unfortunately not. Premier Horgan handed the governor a cheque for $600,000 to study a rail link between Seattle and Surrey. This happened the day after a “Buy-American” executive order from the White House made it impossible for Canadian companies to contribute to that study, or the construction project (in the extremely unlikely event it is ever built). Premier Horgan was taken for a ride by Governor Inslee, and British Columbians paid for the ticket.

READ MORE: Horgan renews ties with Washington governor

READ MORE: B.C. pitches in for Vancouver-Seattle rail study

The concern British Columbians should have now is, while the provincial government has been asleep at the wheel, a prospect of an even worse scenario has emerged. It is becoming increasingly likely that Canada, without the advocacy of B.C., is lurching toward a quota-based agreement. This would mean Americans get to tell British Columbians how much lumber can be shipped over the border.

The B.C. government would then choose which companies to distribute quotas to, giving the already overzealous NDP an opening to choose winners and losers within our forestry industry. This should cause great nervousness for anyone working in a mill in a B.C. Liberal riding.

To solve this problem for the benefit of hard-working British Columbians, the profile of the softwood lumber dispute needs to be raised. In that, the government is failing. The premier is failing. He’s sending all the wrong signals. If Governor Inslee is a true ally, then the premier should bring home evidence of that for B.C. forestry communities. So far the relationship has nothing to show for British Columbian jobs.

Is there any wonder the B.C. forest sector is feeling neglected and vulnerable? Our premier is unwilling, or unable, to muster the courage to speak on their behalf.

Andrew Wilkinson is leader of the B.C. Liberal Party.

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