TORONTO – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday he wanted to see details before passing final judgment on President Bush's vow to solve a dispute that has cost Canadian lumber companies billions of dollars in tariffs.
"I take the president at his word, but I'm anxious to see the details of what he has to offer," Harper said at a news conference in Ottowa. The two spoke by telephone Monday, three days before their summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Cancun.
The Bush administration imposed the tariffs in 2002 after accusing Canada of subsidizing its lumber industry. Most U.S. timber is harvested from private land at market prices, while in Canada, the government owns 90 percent of timberlands and charges fees for logging.
Canadian lumber companies have paid more than $4.5 billion since 2002. The dispute has sparked concerns that the rules of free trade under the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico are unraveling.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Canada have stalled since a NAFTA panel ruled in Canada's favor last August. Harper already has an ally in Fox, who visited Canada last fall and criticized the United States for ignoring the ruling.
But Washington has said that ruling did not address a decision by the World Trade Organization, which found U.S. lumber mills were in fact threatened by government-subsidized lumber imports from Canada.
Bush, in an interview with Canadian journalists in Washington on Monday, said he wants to find a lasting solution to the lumber dispute.
"First of all, I'd like to get the issue solved," Bush said in remarks released Tuesday by the White House. "So the strong signal is, is that I've told our folks that, let's work hard to bring this issue to conclusion."
When Harper took office in February, he put an end to nearly 13 years of Liberal Party rule in Canada, during which time relations were often strained between Washington and Ottawa. The ties plunged when Canada declined to contribute troops for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Bush conceded that relations between the two countries have soured since the war. "War is terrible, it's an awful thing," he said. "I bear no ill will whatsoever and I understand the strategic importance of being close to our friends."
Harper also said Tuesday he plans to address Washington's intention to require passports or other forms of secure identification to enter the United States by 2008. Business groups fear the proposal will severely impede tourism and commerce between the world's largest trading bloc, which conducts some $1.5 billion in business daily.