Angry after struggling to survive the mad cow crisis for 15 months, a small group of Canadian beef producers has launched a multimillion-dollar claim against the U.S. government in a bid to force the reopening of the border to live cattle.
The notice of intent to submit claims under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement was filed in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, said Rick Paskal, a feedlot owner and spokesman for the group Canadian Cattlemen for Fair Trade.
"Are we poking a pencil in the Americans' (eye)? Well, what they've done to us is a lot more than poking a pencil in our eyes," Paskal said.
"Our rights have been violated. We have no marketplace here in Canada . . . we've got a wreck coming here."
Producers are seeking a total of $150 million in damages in the claims filed Thursday.
The group plans to get other Canadian producers in the weeks ahead to file similar claims to put mounting pressure on politicians in Washington to take action.
"We hope to build on this claim. We have participants from Alberta to Quebec right now," Paskal said.
"We hope to get a half-a-billion-dollar suit, maybe a billion-dollar suit against the United States government. We hope this will open the border."
The claims contend the investments producers have made in their ranches and feedlots have been damaged by the U.S. government's decision in May 2003 to close the border when mad cow disease was discovered in a single Alberta cow, said lawyer Todd Weiler, an expert on NAFTA and one of two lawyers acting for the producers in the case.
While U.S. officials have declared Canadian beef safe since then, the border remains closed to live cattle.
"A lot of these producers here used to have seven or eight places they could send their cattle to process -- now they have three," said Weiler, who noted government-to-government negotiations on such issues are often futile.
He pointed to the long-running dispute between British Columbia and the U.S. over softwood lumber as an example.
"Softwood lumber was going on for years, government-to-government, and things only really started getting serious when some of those softwood lumber producers brought their own Chapter 11 case," said Weiler, who is currently a law professor in Washington, D.C.
"This is hopefully like softwood lumber in that we're going to get things because we're going to get involved ourselves."
Cor Van Raay, who is one of the ranchers seeking compensation, said producers had no choice but to take drastic action.
"We want to get on the radar screen. We want to get the attention of both the United States and the Canadian government and say, hey, we're desperate," he said.
Van Raay estimates he has lost up to $200 on each animal he is selling, a situation that would be worse without federal-provincial aid programs.
He said the claim for damages would continue even if the border reopened tomorrow.
The closure has ravaged Canada's beef industry and hurt rural communities that depend on it. Some estimates say producers have lost up to $2.3 billion.
The closure has also created a massive backlog of cattle that is expected to reach crisis proportions this fall.
Ted Haney, president of the Canada Beef Export Federation, said the NAFTA claims clearly show producers are fed up.
"There is an increasing level of frustration that the border may not have been closed legitimately, and that the border has not reopened quick enough," Haney told CBC Newsworld.
"Industry frustration is now clearly directed toward more aggressive actions."
Edmonton Liberal MP David Kilgour said the federal government will continue its own efforts to convince the Americans to reopen the border.
In the meantime, the producers' NAFTA claims should at least get the attention of the U.S. government, he said.
"Well, if this doesn't get their attention, I don't know what will."