It’s been said that one sometimes can’t see the forest from the trees. In other words, it can be difficult to see the big picture. Of course, if all the trees are felled you will be left with an unobstructed view of nothing. Where the softwood lumber industry is concerned, the big picture extends much further than your own backyard. In a recent twist to the ongoing softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the United States, a coalition of U.S. environmental groups has banded with Canada’s First Nations in a joint intervention of legeal proceedings that have been brought against Canadian lumber producers by their American counterparts.

Softwood lumber trade, which involves nearly $12 billion annually, is at the center of a long standing dispute between Canada and the U.S. Since the expiration of the Softwood Lumber Agreement on March 31, 2001, the U.S. timber industry has petitioned the Department of Commerce in an effort to end unfair pricing practices on the part of Canada. 80 percent of Canadian lumber is exported to our southern neighbours. Though one might think that First Nations and environmental organizations would have little in common with American lumber industry goals, that is in fact the case in this situation.

It turns out that treaty violations against the Quebec Cree constitute a form of subsidy to the timber industry. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, of the Natural Resource Defence Council (NRDC), informed the Nation that, “the NRDC formally submitted these claims as a petition to the U.S. Commerce Department, because they are right now in the middle of trying to determine if there are subsidies that are countervailable under U.S. trade law, meaning that because of these subsidies trade is no longer free.”

If this were indeed the case, the United States, under international trade law, would have the right to slap duties on softwood lumber entering the U.S. as a legal means of off-setting the subsidies. Under the Free Trade Agreement, trade has to be truly free. If subsidies are seen to apply to one of the trading partners, trade is no longer considered free and the agreement can be considered violated.

“Environment is a very important part of trade,” says Lefkowitz.

“When you have trade that ignores things like violations of environmental laws, it’s not going to truly be free trade and we think that this case absolutely proves that. You have to take environment and, in this case, First Nations and human rights issues into account when you’re looking at trade policy.”

Some of the subsidies that are considered unfair include a lack of enforcement of environmental law which exempts companies from the costs of compliance, and violation of First Nations treaty rights which then provides lumber companies with greater access to forest resources. The situation is one that allows for easier clear-cutting and magnifies the devastation on forests. The idea of First Nations and environmentalists being on the same side as the U.S. lumber industry might seem like an uneasy alliance, but all three sides have a common stake in this dispute – even though it might stem from different reasons.

Lefkowitz assures us that her group is “not against logging and not against trade, but we want logging to be done in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment unnecessarily. We also want to make sure that citizens have a right to participate in these decisions about how the public lands are being used. That’s especially applicable for the Cree, who are a nation that traditionally have had use of these lands for many years and actually have treaty agreements that specify how they’re supposed

to be participating in development decisions.”