Fallout from the ongoing softwood lumber dispute is taking its toll on Canadians – just ask the 15,000 British Columbia forestry workers who lost their jobs after the U.S. Government levied duties 29 per cent on incoming softwood lumber.

The lumber industry is reeling, but it is Canada’s First Nations who must contend with having been excluded from a decision that was made in without regard to constitutionally protected Aboriginal treaties.

The dispute centres on the U.S. government’s contention that the provincial governments subsidize their lumber industries. Timber companies pay what is called a “stumpage fee” to the provincial government for every tree cut. This is meant to regulate logging, but according to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), these fees are often reduced or even returned to the company that paid them. The U.S. Government wants to prevent a flood of cheap Canadian wood on the American market, and so they imposed a duty on Canadian softwood lumber to “level the playing field” between the two markets.

Aboriginal groups claim to have been shut out of these discussions, and National Aboriginal Forestry Association (NAFA) Executive Director Harry Bombay has called the tariff a major deterrent to First Nation forest-based economic development.

“The…dispute is going to be a factor holding us back in terms of our ability to access the U.S. softwood lumber market. We need that market if First Nations are going to benefit economically from the forest resources on [First Nations] lands,” said Bombay.

NAFA is an Ottawa-based NGO that has been advancing the concepts of aboriginal control and sustainable development of forest resources since 1989. Their role as a First Nation-controlled organization is to advise and provide technical support on forestry issues to communities.

The measure taken by the U.S. in response to subsidized logging carries with it two conditions that NAFA says would undermine Canadians and First Nations alike. “The U.S. is saying that we need to have more private ownership, and that our selling of wood has to be more market-based. Those two conditions…don’t take into consideration the Canadian situation, and the fact that average people do have an interest, title, and right to the forests and lands of Canada.” Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was unwilling to comment on the grounds that the softwood dispute was a trade issue.

If the tariff hike has a silver lining for First Nations, it would be that logging will slow down. And though that may be less than stellar news for business, it could also mean less pressure on disputed lands.

“The Grand Council said that they had an interest in these lands,” explained environmental analyst Jeff Quayle. “Some of these people are subsidized by not having to account for treaties. You have certain limits to protect the environment under treaty like James Bay, and if you’re not following that treaty, then you’re obviously getting an indirect subsidy,” he said.

The Council maintains that forestry is a threat to First Nation land rights, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Canada and the provinces often allow logging despite First Nations land rights.

The Grand Council first entered into the debate because logging companies have been operating on lands of dispute. They felt that if the government was discussing trade policy with the U.S., that policy would have an impact on what happens back on these traditional lands.

An agreement has since been signed by the Council and the Quebec Government, whereby a revenue-sharing formula was adopted to compensate for Cree lands that were logged.

The NRDC alleges that logging companies still benefit from uncertainty and a lack of enforcement for Aboriginal Land Titles.