Border may stay closed: Harper
Protectionist forces winning in U.S., Conservative leader says
OTTAWA - The U. S. border won't likely re-open to Canada's beef exports until after 2005 - if then, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper warned today.
In a pessimistic statement, Harper said Canada will have to find internal solutions to the mad cow crisis that has devastated the beef industry, because it could be a very long wait for crucial export markets to reopen.
"We still do not know when the border will re-open," Harper told a brief news conference, one of his first in Ottawa since the June federal election.
"And frankly, given the strength of protectionist forces in the United States and given the ongoing Liberal mismanagement of Canada-U.S. relations, I do not believe we can know if the border will, in fact, reopen.
"This is strictly a political problem. It has nothing - nothing whatsoever, to do with the quality and safety of Canadian beef."
While Harper hinted that better relations between Canada's Liberal government and Washington might improve matters, he also suggested U.S. authorities are in no rush to solve the problem.
"Bad relations . . . have in my judgment without a doubt played a role in how poorly this has run its course," Harper said.
"That said, the ongoing American closure is without justification . . . this is simply a question of protectionism."
The crisis, which has cost Canadian producers billions, was triggered when a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered on a northern Alberta farm in May 2003.
The border was immediately shut to exports and while the U.S. now allows some cuts of beef to cross, certain live cattle exports from Canada remain banned.
Worsening matters, a BSE case was discovered in Washington state in December, making it impossible for U.S. producers to export, especially to the important Japanese market.
The issue has driven down beef prices paid to Canadian producers and left them with herds they can't afford to feed this winter.
Producers have suggested a range of solutions to make the Canadian industry more self-sufficient, from increasing slaughter and processing capacity to short-term financial aid until prices improve.
Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell, who recently met his U.S. counterpart Ann Veneman to push for a speedy border opening, denied his Liberal government has mismanaged the issue.
And he accused Harper of playing politics with a complex issue.
"Rather than trying out political rhetoric, I think we ought to be focusing on the specific issues that face us," he said during a Liberal retreat in Kelowna, B.C.
"I'm not going to speculate on a border opening, but I'm determined to work with the industry, with the provinces on developing made-in-Canada solutions," added Mitchell.
"We need to ensure that our producers have an opportunity to sustain and build an industry."
But there's not much more the Canadian government or the industry could do on the diplomatic front, said feedlot operator Jack de Boer.
"The U.S. government is in a protectionist mode and until they get their markets back from Japan and other countries, I don't think they're interested in our beef," said De Boer, who holds about 15,000 head of cattle in southern Alberta.
Harper said short-term, low-interest loans might be possible to help producers. But he didn't give details or put a price tag on potential solutions.
Harper did call for more study and meetings on the mad cow crisis, especially on how to cope with a longtime border closure.
"We have to look at the indefinite shutting of the border. . . what are our plans going to be if the border remains fully or partly shut?" said Harper.
"It is completely unfair, American actions in this case are blatantly protectionist and without regard to their trading responsibilities."
De Boer said Canada may have to take the fight to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, a long, costly process.
"That's a longshot, but I think our government at some point has got to take up that challenge and I think the time is here."