Brett Gosselin, a lumberjack like his father before him, lives his life in solitary 12-hour shifts in the vast pine forests that stretch across the Canadian north, master of a gigantic whirling buzz saw that can fell several 100-foot trees in a single crashing roar.
The isolation, or risk of injury, holds no terror for him. But on an afternoon when the future of North America’s globalized economic order appeared to hang in the balance, Gosselin – a tall, heavyset man in a black hooded sweatshirt – retreated to the bar of a local hotel and admitted something: He was very worried.
In Washington, some 2,300 miles away, the Trump administration was venting its frustration with the tangled trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico, forged a quarter-century ago, that it was now threatening to unravel.
Trade with the U.S. is so crucial that Quesnel flies an American flag at its visitors center, alongside the maple leaf. The mayor was asked this week to take it down.
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Gosselin was letting off some anger of his own – fretting about the possibility of layoffs, cursing President Donald Trump and stewing about the iniquity of being just one small figure in a great supply chain to the world’s most powerful economy.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s what I’m scared of,” Gosselin said, huddled over a white porcelain pot of tea in the bar of the Cariboo Hotel. “I’m just a low-class little guy that runs a machine, until the mill says that’s enough.”
Quesnel (pronounced Kwe-nel), a town of just 10,000 in the rolling hills of British Columbia, may be spectacularly remote in ordinary times, but it is ground zero in the escalating trade war between the United States and Canada.
The dispute burst into the open this week with Trump accusing the Canadians of trying to keep U.S. dairy products out of their markets while dumping cheap lumber on the United States, and with the Commerce Department slapping tariffs of up to 24 percent on the country’s lumber industry.
The Canadians punched back. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would “vigorously” defend the country’s economic interests. British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark, who is facing a tough fight for reelection on May 9, called for a ban on U.S. coal shipments from provincial ports. And industry leaders urged Canada to ship its lumber west to growing markets in Asia instead of its giant neighbor to the south.
On Wednesday, the White House went so far as to signal that it might scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement altogether, before eventually concluding the United States would not exit the treaty “at this time.”
But while that ominous outcome, for now, has been avoided, Quesnel is still an early casualty.
It’s going to hurt a lot of people. Jobs, families, people going bankrupt. People will be living on the street.
Brett Gosselin, a lumberjack in Quesnel, B.C.
The logging hub – whose rugged beginnings in the gold rush are symbolized by a giant mining pan on the road out of town – is home to three of the five Canadian lumber companies named in the Commerce Department’s complaint.
This is a town that runs on lumber hewed from the surrounding lodgepole pine forests. At the West Fraser sawmill, one of the biggest in the world, the logs are piled so high they rival the tallest buildings downtown.
The mill’s vast machinery comes to life late Sunday night and runs without stopping through the Friday graveyard shift. The entire building shakes with the motion of the massive conveyors required to move the logs across the seven-acre production line.
Trade with the United States is so crucial that Quesnel flies a U.S. flag at its visitors center, alongside the maple leaf. On Tuesday, the mayor said that an angry constituent asked him to take it down.
The two countries have had several eruptions over softwood lumber over the past 30 years. Disputes have typically played out with the United States imposing tariffs and Canada challenging those measures in long, expensive court battles. Such periodic spats were even immortalized in a “West Wing” episode.
This week brought the latest installment of the saga.
“We affectionately call it ‘Lumber 5,’ “ joked Bob Matters, the chair of the United Steelworkers Wood Council, which represents local lumber workers. “It’s like a bad action movie that keeps coming back again and again.”
But as Gosselin spent the afternoon commiserating with the bartender and other customers, there was a sense that this time around things are different. Behind the bar, Sid Cyca, who sold lumber for West Fraser before retiring to take over the family restaurant, said Trump had gone too far.
“It’s not a proper way of doing business between countries,” Cyca said. “We don’t have that problem with any other country, like China or Japan. The price is the price, and they pay it. It sort of rubs everybody the wrong way.”
Gosselin told him Trump did not fully realize the impact a trade war would have on towns such as Quesnel.
“It’s not good,” Gosselin said. “It’s going to hurt a lot of people. Jobs, families, people going bankrupt. People will be living on the street. He doesn’t seem to realize that. He doesn’t give a s---.”
Cyca argued that the whole rationale for NAFTA was to avoid disputes such as this - although softwood lumber is one of the many products exempt from the treaty.
“That’s why we put NAFTA in there, so there wouldn’t be no dogfighting,” he said.
The Trump administration came into office promising harsh treatment for countries that cheat the United States on trade, including renegotiating or withdrawing from NAFTA and slapping tariffs on China, Mexico and U.S. companies that relocate abroad.
Instead, the president withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a largely symbolic move, given that Congress was unlikely to ratify it – and announced executive orders directing his Cabinet to study trade-related matters.
But as he nears the close of his first 100 days in office, Trump has moved more forcefully on trade. The Commerce Department announced last week that it was undertaking an investigation into whether steel imports compromise U.S. national security – an accusation that, if supported by Congress’s findings, could lead to tariffs or other punitive trade measures.
Then on Monday came the new tariffs on softwood lumber.
U.S. lumber companies argue that Canada unfairly subsidizes its exports, since almost all the trees Canadian companies cut are on government land. The Canadians say that their operations are just more efficient and that American claims are a naked effort at protectionism.
Those claims are backed up by a major U.S. construction industry group that argues that the biggest loser in the trade tiff will be the American consumer. Much of Canada’s high-grade lumber goes to build new U.S. homes.
“Clearly, protectionist measures to prop up domestic lumber producers at the expense of millions of U.S. home buyers and lumber users is not the way to resolve the U.S.-Canada trade dispute or boost the U.S. economy,” Granger MacDonald, the chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, argued in a statement Tuesday.
The two countries had managed to keep those tensions in check for roughly a decade under an agreement in which Canada voluntarily limits exports and the countries promise not to sue each other. But the pact expired in October, and the complaints and lawsuits from the U.S. timber industry resumed.
“Everybody expected there would be duties – the question was just how much,” said Kris Hayman, the president and chief executive of C&C Resources, a family-owned company that makes wood paneling and other products.
D’Arcy Henderson, a regional manager for West Fraser, said the company is diversified enough to ride out the new tariffs. The company is pushing into growing consumer markets in Japan, China and India, and it is acquiring mills throughout the American Southwest, where the growing season is longer.
But Hayman said the tariffs would be a challenge for small companies such as his. C&C supplies its products to U.S. stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, which are in a position to find cheaper sources.
The town is still scarred by the shutdown of the logging and milling operation that came as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis – when Gosselin was forced to move back in with his parents.
Residents fear another shuttered mill could send more away from the town and sap its vitality.
Then there is the additional threat posed by climate change. While the forests that surround Quesnel appear almost endless, they are actually running out.
Years ago, mountain pine beetles moved into the surrounding forests, nesting in the trees and cutting off their flow of nutrients. The epidemic killed roughly 80 percent of the area’s lodgepole pines, the species the town’s lumber industry depends on.
For people such as Gosselin, the tariffs – and the further threat of a trade war – are just too much, a reminder that workers are operating in an environment where there are powerful outside forces.
“What can we do? We’re just a tiny little speck of dust on a map. We just go with the flow,” he said. “Yeah, Trump, he’s the man. . . . What can you do? Hold on for the ride. I just hope it turns out better for us.”