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Trade Minister to meet U.S. envoy as lumber file gets emotional

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:00 p.m. August 26, 2005]

OTTAWA  — Trade Minister Jim Peterson's office has confirmed he will meet with David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, next week to restate Canada's position in the softwood lumber dispute. 
The meeting comes after Wilkins made headlines on Friday when he said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen that Canadian politicians should stop their "emotional tirades" and send negotiators back to the table to resolve the dispute.

"Emotional press conferences are not going to settle the issue," Mr. Wilkins said in his interview with the Citizen. "Canada needs to come back to the table. We need to close the door, roll up our sleeves and negotiate as need be, with good faith, and bring finality to it."

Peterson and Wilkins' offices had been trying to arrange a meeting well before Wilkins made the comments. It is the first time the two men will meet face-to-face since Wilkins arrived in Ottawa in June. 

Two weeks ago, the U.S. said a final NAFTA ruling in Canada's favour in the lumber dispute would have no impact on the duties placed on lumber exports or the estimated $5 billion in duties the U.S. has collected so far. 

Canada's response has been threats of trade retaliation, a decision to cancel negotiations that were scheduled in Ottawa this week, and a lot of tough talk from senior economic ministers. 

This week, Industry Minister David Emerson - himself once a softwood executive - compared the U.S.'s handling of the situation to that of a hockey goon making a dirty hit. 

Prime Minister Paul Martin has also used tough language - he called the U.S. action "untenable" - but has yet to call U.S. President George W. Bush to personally voice Canada's concerns.  The PM has promised to call Bush "soon" after further consultation with industry and provinces. 

Speaking with reporters in Winnipeg where the Liberal cabinet is meeting, Peterson said Wilkins got it all wrong when he said that Canadians are being emotional. 

"He talked about Canadians being emotional. Canadians are determined and committed that the NAFTA be respected and that's the message that we want him to get to the administration," Peterson said. 

"We've spoken to the fact that the Americans should abide by the terms of the NAFTA and that is the rule of law and that is Canada's position: the rule of law must be respected. That does not involve a trade war. That involves honouring the decisions of the NAFTA panel."

Emerson spoke more forcefully and appeared to contradict Peterson when he said Canada "has a right to be emotional." He also continued to describe the U.S. in unflattering terms, comparing the Americans to a bully.

And he described Wilkins' comments hypocritical and blasted what he called the "very cynical" American negotiating stance. 

"We know this is a game which the Americans play where heads they win, tails we lose."

Finance Minister Ralph Goodale stood behind the move to respond with some form of trade retaliation and said Canada needs to be "strategic and sensible" in dealing with imposing trade sections on the U.S. but must be careful not to shoot itself in the foot.

As for Wilkins' comments, Goodale refused to get involved. 

"I don't want to engage in the very kind of excess the ambassador may be inviting. I would advise him to take his own advice."

Meanwhile the Conservatives are pressing the PM to get further involved in the quickly escalating dispute. 

In a press release, Conservative MP John Duncan made light of Emerson's comments to take a hockey goon's sweater number and the PM's yet-to-be-made phone call to Bush. 

"Mr. Martin, last week, to quote your Industry Minister David Emerson, 'in hockey you take down the number of the guy who hits you.' Two weeks ago you promised Premier Campbell you would call President Bush about the NAFTA softwood decision. 

"The good news is that both you and Mr. Emerson are looking for the same number! The White House switchboard can be reached at 202-456-1414. Ask for the President," Duncan said. 

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