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Canadian mayors trek to Yakima Valley stumping to open borders to beef trade

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Three Canadian mayors from Lethbridge, Brooks and Medicine Hat visited Mabton to develop a working relationship with those in the U.S. in light of the economic disaster facing the cattle industry. The trio from Alberta met with Yakima Valley mayors Wednesday. One of their stops was to Mabton where they spoke with mayor David Conradt. Pictured are (L-R) Brook Mayor Don Weisbeck, Lethbridge Mayor Robert Tarleck and Conradt.

Lethbridge, Alberta, Can. Mayor Robert Tarleck and his colleagues refer to themselves as "the three Canadian amigos."

Tarleck, Don Weisbeck, mayor of Brooks, Alberta, and Mayor Garth Vallely of Medicine Hat, Alberta, traveled this week to the Yakima Valley, where the first case of BSE, or mad cow disease, in the United States has been found, to try and encourage the reopening of the Canadian-American border to trade of live beef.

The mayors know first-hand the kind of impact being labeled a "mad cow" country can have on the economy. Their towns and cities have felt the effects of BSE since March 2003, when the first Canadian case of mad cow disease was found in northern Alberta, across the country from their communities, which are located in the southern part of the province.

Tarleck said that when the border was closed last March, it put in jeopardy 100 years of infrastructure development created to support the beef industry. He said that for nearly 100 years the United States, Canada and Mexico have been trading cattle freely.

In September 2003, boneless beef was again allowed across the U.S.-Canadian boarder, but it's not enough to sustain the economy, said the three visiting mayors.

Tarleck said there are American slaughter companies that buy Canadian beef, that are waiting for the borders to be reopened. In the meantime they are going out of business. Grain growers in Montana that sell to Canada are also closing shop, he said.

He added that BSE isn't a Canadian issue, it's a North American issue.

When the United States and foreign markets turned their noses up at Canadian beef in March due to the case of BSE, the economy in Lethbridge, Brooks and Medicine Hat began to slow.

Prior to the BSE finding, 60 percent of Canadian beef was exported.

With less discretionary cash, the over-all economy is fading, they say.

Vallely said that people aren't going out and buying things such as shoes and machinery. He said trucks aren't running and people are being laid off of work.

Although Medicine Hat and Lethbridge have somewhat diverse economies, Brooks, a town of about 12,500, is what Weisbeck calls a "two-horse town."

One of the community's economic footholds is employing 2,400 people in the largest slaughter facility in Alberta. About 80 percent of the cattle slaughtered in Canada are from Alberta. About one-fourth of the employees working at the plant are bused in from Medicine Hat, said Vallely. Vallely estimates that about 50 percent of the jobs in his community are either directly or indirectly affected by the beef industry.

Lethbridge, a community of about 75,000, known for multiple feed lot operations, has also been hit by the world closing its doors to Canadian beef.

Tarleck said one beef producer was told to get rid of 10,000 head of cattle before the United States BSE case was confirmed in December. He was advised to eliminate another 5,000 last month.

Up until the Canadian BSE outbreak the country had about 13 million head of cattle. About 6.5 million of those animals were in Alberta. Annually, the mayors added, 3.25 million cattle are slaughtered, about 80 percent of which where in Alberta.

The three mayors are trying to keep the border issue at the forefront of people's minds, afraid with all that is going on in the United States the border issue will be swept under the rug until next year.

As full-time elected mayors, the men have decided that they can't sit back at their desks in Brooks, Lethbridge or Medicine Hat and fix the situation. This is their second trip to the United States to discuss trade issues. They visited Montana last summer.

Tarleck said with the United States' war on terrorism and war in Iraq, the presidential election and the focus on their own BSE case, there are other issues in the U.S. that can be put above reopening the border to the trade of live cattle.

"The people that are most directly impacted are the middle to small operators," said Weisbeck. "It will be left to the large operators."

"The family operated businesses are being hurt. If that's destroyed I'm not sure it will ever recover to what it was. I think we might have lost the heart and soul of the Canadian west," Tarleck added.

Weisbeck added that there are also psychological effects as third and fourth generation farmers are losing their grandfather or great-grandfather's farm.

"We have family businesses that are shutting their doors after 50 years in business," Weisbeck added.

But, there has been a bright side in the Canadian beef. The Canadian citizen's support of the beef industry has gone up, say the mayors.

Tarleck said beef barbecue rallies have been held in support of the industry and in his community they had "The Great Canadian Cattle Drive" to support the industry.

"The employees in my city alone bought $60,000 in beef," said Tarleck.

But it's not enough to revive the fledgling economy.

Tarleck said the issue should be resolved using science and reason and communication with global partners. He added that a revision to protocols should be made by both countries.

While the United States continues to work on trade negotiations to reopen the exporting of beef to Japan and other countries, Tarleck said, "What we need to do is not just shuffle it (the border issue) aside. It's difficult to just open borders when you yourself are not open."

. Melissa Browning can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail mbrowning@eaglenewspapers.com

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