Lumber Trade is Canada's Priority at Cancun Summit

Mexico's top priority with the United States is immigration, but for Canada it's a trade dispute over softwood lumber. Steve Inskeep talks to reporter Richard Reynolds about the importance of this North American summit to Canada.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When President Bush meets Mexico's president today in Cancun, he will also be meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Steven Harper. There's another set of issues on the other American border, and Richard Reynolds is covering them from Toronto.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD REYNOLDS reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: Now, when President Bush turns to Steven Harper, this is a meeting between two guys who are Westerners, two guys who are conservatives.

REYNOLDS: Yes, it'll be interesting to see what the personal dynamic is between them. On one level, on the surface, they may appear to be similar. But in a lot of ways, they're really not. You know, I think, Mr. Bush is pretty widely regarded as being, you know, a nice guy. Like, you know, the kind of guy you might want to hang out with. Steven Harper gives the impression to Canadians that he's very cold. He was an academic and an intellectual--doesn't really seem to have much in the way of charm.

So, in that sense, they are very, very different. And even though in Canada he is considered to be conservative, his party is called the Conservative Party; nonetheless, you know, conservatives in Canada are considerably to the left of where conservatives in the U.S. are.

INSKEEP: Now, when they settle down to talk, the U.S. and Mexico, as we've heard, will be talking immigration. What issues will be on the table when Canada enters that conversation?

REYNOLDS: Well, I think Harper's will be about three things that are going to be foremost in his mind. Overall, it's just to improve his relationship with the U.S. president. Bush has not had particularly good relations with his two predecessors prime ministers in Canada. So it will be, you know, he's hoping to improve those relationships. And underneath that are two key issues for Canada. One is the softwood lumber dispute, duties imposed on imports of Canadian softwood lumber by the U.S., that's been a perennial dispute for more than 15 years.

And the second is new U.S. requirements coming into effect late next year that will require Canadians and Americans to have passports to cross the Canada-U.S. border. And this is raising quite a ruckus amongst the business community, both in Canada and in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Why would that be? That doesn't seem like that strict a requirement.

REYNOLDS: Well, right now, you can pretty much cross the border with a copy of your birth certificate and a driver's license. And the, and it's always been very easy to go back and forth across the border. And there is an enormous amount of business traffic back and forth across the border everyday. About 15,000 businesspeople every day cross the Canada-U.S. border. Most of them do not have passports.

So there's a real concern if you require Americans and Canadians to have passports, they've got to go to the bother to get it. It's just going to be a crimp in this, sort of, communications between business people on both sides of the border. And keep in mind, this is the world's biggest trading relationship, between Canada and the U.S.

INSKEEP: How resentful do Canadians get when they hear Americans describe Canada as a backdoor to the United States, a vulnerability for the United States?

REYNOLDS: I don't think Canadians are overly concerned about that. Now, there certainly are a lot of Canadians concerned about what might happen if there's another terrorist attack in the U.S., and what that might mean to the border, which remains a relatively easy border to cross. I think, in general, Canadians have a sort of love-hate relationship with the U.S. It's their biggest trading partner, so it has a big impact on Canada's economy. So it makes Canadians very worried and wary about what the U.S. is going to do next. But, at the same time, I think Canadians are fundamentally pro-American.

INSKEEP: Richard Reynolds is in Toronto.

Thanks very much.

REYNOLDS: Not at all.

INSKEEP: And, of course, this summit takes place at a time of a big immigration debate here in the United States, which has generated a range of responses from our listeners. And you can read a sampling and contribute your thoughts at npr.org.

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