On a recent visit to southern Ontario for a family funeral, I took a stroll around the old neighborhood and stopped to read a historical plaque commemorating the site of Upper Canada’s first paper mill. There in the little town of Flamborough (now amalgamated with Hamilton), barely a mile from my childhood home, the industrialist James Crooks began operating the mill in 1826. It continued producing paper until it was destroyed by fire in 1875 – a good long run by today’s standards.
In a vague way I have always known about the mill, which was one of many established on Spencer Creek in that period. What caught my attention this time was the following bronze-embossed sentence: “Construction of the paper mill was encouraged by an expanding domestic market and the British government’s imposition in 1826 of a high tariff on paper imported into Canada from the United States.” Sound familiar?
Today it’s the U.S. imposing duties on paper from Canadian companies alleged to have received government subsidies that contravene our trade agreements. Meanwhile, with the Maritime Lumber Bureau having left the trade battlefield to concentrate on grade stamping two-by-fours, the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments are taking up the fight to maintain an exclusion from tariffs provided under the now-expired Softwood Lumber Agreement – which means demonstrating that sawmills are not receiving subsidies in the form of low Crown stumpage rates.
No matter where you stand ideologically, it’s worth remembering that free trade is not a state of nature; it’s a contrivance that can only be sustained by constant effort and vast expenditure. (Insert snarky comment about lawyers here.) Somehow “market-based” has become the gold standard for fairness – yet the “buy local” message is sanctioned by many governments, and is more compelling to most of us.
Amid a plague of home renovations this past summer (yes, it’s a First World problem), I was compelled to find suitable wood flooring for a room that was done over. To keep things simple, I wanted to avoid sanding and applying multiple coats of varnish, so pre-finished flooring was the preferred choice. But as you will know if you have been reading AFR for the past couple years, local manufacturers of this product have become very scarce in Nova Scotia.
First there was the demise of Finewood Flooring in Middle River, followed closely by the closure of River’s Bend Wood Products in Antigonish. To many of us, the loss of these family businesses was inexplicable, because flooring seems like a great way to add value to wood, and it lends itself well to exporting. And exporting, we are told by well-paid economic visionaries, is the only route to salvation for our poor little province. I’m not going to get started on the issue of sorting and sourcing hardwood saw logs in Nova Scotia. For the moment I am wearing my “irate consumer” hat, even if it looks silly on me.
This was the hat I wore as I walked into one of those flooring retail chain stores, where the smell of vinyl and avarice hung heavy in the air. When I asked about local hardwood, the salesman seemed genuinely apologetic. He even dug out some River’s Bend samples, and checked for remaining inventory, but all the store had left was a batch that was finished with an unattractive gray wash. (Is this what people mean by “pickled” wood?) So my search continued.
A bit of on-line shopping led me to Larch Wood Enterprises in Margaree, where they make flooring not from hardwood but from tamarack (as well as end-grain cutting boards for the culinary market). The flooring is sent out of the province to be factory finished, then shipped back to be direct marketed from the company’s shop. I toyed with the idea of putting the kids in the truck and making a road trip to Cape Breton, but getting away for more than 24 hours just wasn’t feasible at that time.
Eventually I became frustrated, feeling that my “buy local” principle was demanding too great an expenditure of resources, so I calculated the required square footage, scanned the fliers for a sale price, and brusquely purchased the appropriate quantity of hardwood flooring from one of the big-box stores. It was “natural birch,” but almost preternaturally clear and straight-grained. The distributor whose name was attached to the product is a well-known Canadian company, and I figured that was good enough. Only when I got home and started unloading the flooring did I look more closely at the label on the end of each box, where it said “Made in PRC.” I groaned and cursed. Had it come to this? In the 21st century it’s hard to get through a day without consuming something made or processed in China – but wood flooring? In Canada?
Before making a return trip to the store to get a refund, I did a bit of research about the flooring business. (Not real research, just a quick consultation with Google.) It turns out Global News did some investigative work on this sector in 2014, and revealed that Chinese flooring has flooded the Canadian market over the past 10 years. That part’s hardly shocking. What we ought to find troubling is the fact that this imported wood is often repackaged and marketed here either presumptively or explicitly as a Canadian product.
Apart from the illegality and dishonesty of this practice, and the damage it does to our domestic economy, it’s also a concern because environmental standards in the Chinese manufacturing sector are not exactly stringent, and some flooring contains urea-formaldehyde, a carcinogen that will continue off-gassing in your house after the flooring is installed.
Then there’s the question of where and how the timber is sourced. Global reported that a considerable quantity of the wood processed in China is harvested under dubious circumstances, some of it purchased from organized crime groups engaged in illegal logging in Russia’s Far East, where deforestation threatens wildlife species such as the Siberian tiger. So in addition to the question of sustainability, we’re talking about stolen goods entering the North American building supplies market.
I have been known to roll my eyes when forest industry representatives go on at length about how well regulated this sector is in Canada, relative to far-flung nations where lawlessness prevails in the woods. This is the same stance that has given us Alberta’s specious “ethical oil” argument. It’s like the guy who feels the need to tell you that he has never beaten his wife, as if this warrants some special commendation. That kind of self-satisfied statement is always a distraction from the matter at hand. But on the other hand, surely our trade relationships should be a means of promoting good governance abroad. It seems absurd that Canada and the U.S. engage in an endless scrap over the perception of a level playing field, while both countries import huge quantities of stuff produced under conditions we would never tolerate here. (Thai shrimp anyone?)
In the end we went for old-fashioned unfinished flooring from a local producer. It’s tamarack – pretty tough, with a pronounced grain in wild patterns, so every piece is distinctive. We bought a mill-run batch, which meant grading out defects took some time. But once I went to work with a rented pneumatic cleat nailer, the job didn’t take too long. Although the flooring isn’t butt-jointed, and our sub-floor is not as flat as one might hope, the overall effect is very good. I just went over it with the palm sander and rubbed in a couple coats of tung oil. The flooring will mark, but it can easily be spot-sanded and re-oiled without creating polyurethane dust and fumes in the house. Most importantly, I have the story, which is what we forego when we purchase imported commodities. DL