Happy birthday, George

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The softwood deal is typical of how Ottawa deals with Washington. Whatever the U.S. companies on either side of the border want they get.

Stephen Harper is off to pay George Bush a visit on his birthday. This Thursday, Bush turns 60, and Harper gets 45 minutes with the U.S. President.

The purpose of such a brief meeting is to show Canadians that the Conservatives get along well with the occupant of the White House. While a large majority of Canadians disapprove of George Bush and his policies, Harper strategists are betting Canadians like their Prime Minister to get along with the American President. It is a “see and be seen with him” sort of visit.

But there was a price to pay for the birthday meeting: wildly generous gifts for the American host.

The Harper government softwood lumber settlement is so bad the B.C. government has rejected it on the eve of the Washington meeting with the President which was supposed to build support for the deal. After the last federal election, the B.C. premier, Gordon Campbell, a Liberal, nonetheless praised David Emerson for putting his province before his party when he crossed the floor to become Conservative Industry Minister and the lead federal negotiator in charge of softwood. But, the Harper-Emerson deal is a sweet one for the U.S. lobby group that has been fighting Canadian exports, not for Canadian producers, and B.C. has withdrawn its support.

The U.S. Coalition for Fair Trade in Lumber gets its hands directly on $500 million in duties paid by Canadian-based companies to the U.S. government. This money ends up compensating the U.S. lumber industry for their legal expenses in fighting Canada, and Canadians get to pay for their own lawyers, and the American lawyers as well. What money is left over from the $500 million Canada left on the table can be stored away to fight Canada again, with its own money. Harper and Emerson agreed to this extortion.

Canada is being extorted in order to bribe the U.S. coalition into signing the deal. The idea that U.S. companies can receive customs duties paid to the U.S. government comes from the Byrd Amendment, named after a U.S. senator. His legislative amendment was found to contravene international law, and was struck down by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Better, the U.S. Court of International Trade said it could not be applied to Canada, so under U.S. law, the American lumber companies could not collect the $500 million.

The only way they could get the money was by Canada signing it over to them as part of a softwood agreement. Harper obliged: Happy birthday George.

This concession was outrageous, and even then did not buy peace.

Under the terms of the softwood lumber accord Canada does not even get a ceasefire. The American demanded, and got, clauses giving them the right to supervise Canadian exports, and requiring Canadian companies to cease litigating for their rights. Worse, the softwood deal allows the U.S. to terminate — after a mere 23 months — an agreement where Canada gives up overall a legitimate claim to $1 billion in un-refunded customs duties.

The softwood deal is typical of how Ottawa deals with Washington. Whatever the U.S. companies on either side of the border want they get. Control over Inco and Falconbridge goes to Phoenix, fine. The U.S. wants oil from the tar sands, no problem. It has already taken most of our conventional oil, and Alberta is the largest supplier of energy to the U.S.

George Bush already has enough candles on his cake, and Stephen Harper could have stayed home. What Canada needs is a federal leader with a vision of Canada that allows for saying no to Washington, not someone to drop by with birthday wishes — and presents.

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