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Economies at risk if NAFTA ignores Native rights


D.B. Smith, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Ottawa







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The economies of the First Nations could be destroyed by American business interests if Native rights are not addressed in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the head of the Native Council of Canada said.

There are at present no references to Aboriginal rights in the document, said Ron George. And without further clarification on resource management the First Nations stand to lose everything.

"We want it all addressed. We want water rights. We're talking about resources, we're talking about monopolies. They're talking about intellectual property. Every one of those items affect us...especially if we have outstanding claims negotiations in the works and treaty renovations."

George's comments came on day after the U.S. House of Representative's 434 members passed the deal by a margin of 34 votes. The NCC's own study of NAFTA suggests many Native rights are in jeopardy and that the deal favors Americans. The Charlottetown Accord had 22 references protecting Aboriginal rights, but the 4,000 page NAFTA document has only one "weak reference," George said.

The greatest threat to the First Nations is the jurisdiction over resources within land claim regions, jurisdiction that has not yet been worked out, he said.

"Nobody's been even talking to us about that...We're negotiating in good faith with the federal and provincial governments on our land claims while they're negotiating with another two nations about our resources. So something is drastically wrong about this process."

NAFTA will likely not have any negative impact on Natives, at least in terms of resource management, an External Affairs spokesperson said

In fact, the deal will probably open up new markets for bands, especially sectors like natural resources and energy, Dave Marshall said.

"The producers of natural gas will have greater and more secure access to U.S. markets than before. One would assume that this would apply equally to Native producers of natural gas as non-Native."

But other free trade experts are not as sure. Prof. Jack Forbes of the University of California at Davis said Natives throughout the Americas stand to lose through the deal. The agreement prohibits laws that discriminates against Natives in Mexico, Canada or the United States "in terms of the flow of money," he said. Native governments will no longer be able to restrict their business dealings to their own companies.

"Every measure, law, ordinance, custom or anything that interferes with the flow of goods will be nullified," he said.

NAFTA also only recognizes provinces, states and "local" governments as governing authorities but will not consider the interests of territorial or band governments.

Section 24 of the Federal Indian Act permits land transfers, but only with the approval of Indian Affairs Minister.

But Ottawa will probably not honor is fiduciary obligation under Section 24, George said. Bands will have to adopt their own ordinances, relative to NAFTA, making it clear that the deal will not have any effect within their boundaries, Forbes said.

"That's one of the main defenses - that within the territories they claim, NAFTA will have no impact unless they specifically agreed to it.