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Steelworkers united in defending Canada against perils of American protectionism

WASHINGTON — The largest industrial union in North America came to Canada's defence Thursday, vowing to protect businesses and workers north of the border from the growing peril of protectionism in the United States.

WASHINGTON — The largest industrial union in North America came to Canada's defence Thursday, vowing to protect businesses and workers north of the border from the growing peril of protectionism in the United States. 

United Steelworkers international president Tom Conway issued a joint statement with Canadian counterpart Ken Neumann aimed at making Canada's case for an exemption from Joe Biden's "Buy America" regulations. 

“Canada is not the problem facing U.S. manufacturing and workers," said Conway, citing the exemption Canadian businesses won when similar restrictions were imposed in 2009.

"Co-operation between Canada and U.S. will build on our long-standing and productive trading relationship."

Neumann — addressing a persistent concern in the U.S. when it comes to imports of Canadian steel — urged Ottawa to get more aggressive in its efforts to prevent illegal dumping of foreign products to ensure they don't find their way south. 

"With a clear procurement strategy, Canada must prioritize the use of environmentally sustainable, low-carbon materials that will create and maintain jobs," he said. 

"The Canadian government must also employ stronger tools to address the transshipment of illegally dumped imports, and take pride in the products that Canadians harvest, mine, manufacture and produce."

The statement from the union, which represents more than 850,000 workers in both countries, came one day after President Joe Biden delivered a long-awaited $2-trillion infrastructure plan. 

That plan came with a now-familiar caveat. 

"We're going to make sure that we buy American," Biden said. "That means investing in American-based companies and American workers."

During his first week in office, Biden signed an executive order imposing more rigid Buy American rules on federally funded projects — restrictions from which Canada is already exempt, thanks to U.S. commitments to the World Trade Organization. 

However, "Buy America" — another suite of made-in-the-U.S. rules designed to apply to federally supported state, regional and municipal projects — promise to be more problematic for Canada. 

International Trade Minister Mary Ng emphasized the distinction Thursday as she testified before a special House of Commons committee that's exploring the economic ties between Canada and the U.S. 

"If there's a (U.S.) effort to expand or introduce new domestic content requirements, we will absolutely work to ensure that it does not apply to Canada or affect Canadian supply chains," Ng said. 

Conservative committee member Leona Alleslev expressed little faith in Ng, noting that the governing Liberals had already failed to prevent Biden's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline project.

Ng promised a "Team Canada" group effort, the same bipartisan strategy that ultimately proved fruitful in the federal government's marathon talks with the Trump administration to update NAFTA. 

"What I'm going to do is work in a Team Canada approach, as we have done and we have demonstrated over the last five years, to stand up for Canadian interests." 

Buy America, as it stands, is written to primarily ensure manufactured end products used in eligible projects, as well as iron and steel, are made entirely in the U.S. Experts say they can be difficult to navigate, given the multiple levels of government, bureaucracy and red tape involved.  

A lot can and likely will change between now and when Biden's infrastructure plan gets passed, if indeed it does, Steve Verheul, assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs Canada, told the committee.

Verheul, who served as chief negotiator during the NAFTA talks, acknowledged the possibility that the Buy America caveats could get even more stringent as the package makes its way across Capitol Hill. 

"We have heard some suggestions this could be expanded to cover construction materials, such as cement, aggregate, asphalt, potentially some other products," he told the committee. 

"The package that was announced (Wednesday) has none of these specifics, so we're going to have to see how this evolves as it starts to move through Congress to determine what kind of coverage the U.S. may be considering."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2021. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press