Canada proposes 'groundbreaking' NAFTA chapter on Indigenous rights

Canadian negotiators are pushing to insert “groundbreaking” chapter on Indigenous rights into the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to a representative from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who has been briefed on the talks.

Draft chapter mentions UNDRIP, protection of traditional Indigenous knowledge

Kenneth Deer speaks on behalf of the Oneida Nation Council of Chiefs and the Indigenous World Association at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014. (UN World Forum on Indigenous Issues/Facebook)

Canadian negotiators are pushing to insert a "groundbreaking" chapter on Indigenous rights into the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to a representative from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy who has been briefed on the talks.

Kenneth Deer, who is the external relations representative for the confederacy, said Canadian negotiators recently tabled a draft chapter on Trade and Indigenous Peoples that includes language referring the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the protection of traditional Indigenous knowledge.

Deer, who has extensive international experience representing the confederacy, also said the draft includes mention of the creation of a committee on trade and Indigenous people with representatives from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

"It's not an initiative from Mexico or the United States, it's an initiative of Canada to be engaged positively for and in defence of Indigenous peoples," said Deer, whose confederacy represents six Iroquois nations on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

"In that way it's groundbreaking… We'll see how it goes."

Deer said Mexican negotiators were "optimistic and complimentary about the text" while U.S. negotiators gave it a much colder reception. He said Mexico had some questions around traditional knowledge, but supported sections on health, education and economic development.

National flags representing Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. are lit by stage lights at the North American Free Trade Agreement re-negotiations in Mexico City on Sept. 5. (Canadian Press)

It remains unclear whether NAFTA will survive the current negotiations as a result of the U.S. opening position that the trade agreement is a bad deal. Deer said he believes the proposed chapter will create a model for other agreements even if NAFTA fails.

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson John Babcock said negotiators tabled the chapter during round 5 of NAFTA talks. He said Ottawa's desire to make NAFTA more "inclusive" drove the decision to propose the chapter.

"The government looks forward to continuing our dialogue with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous businesses on how a modernized NAFTA can better address their concerns and support their ability to benefit from NAFTA trade," said Babcock, in a statement.

Deer said Canadian officials have cast a wide net in seeking Indigenous input on ongoing NAFTA talks. He said it was "relatively new" for the Canadian government to engage with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the traditional government for the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

"I am not used to having Canada inviting me to a discussion," said Deer.

"We are being cautious, but encouraged by this. We will always be vigilant to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples."

NAFTA chapter 'window dressing'

Nicole Schabus, a spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, which has previously made submissions on the softwood lumber dispute, said the proposed NAFTA chapter is simply "window dressing" unless it recognizes Indigenous rights over lands and resources.

"We know NAFTA doesn't do that," said Schabus.

"What it does is prioritize corporate access to Indigenous lands and resources."

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde is also an advisor to Ottawa on the NAFTA talks. He recently obtained the backing of the National Congress of American Indians for the inclusion of a chapter on Indigenous peoples.

The AFN said Bellegarde was not available for comment because he is travelling.

It is unclear what role if any Native Americans are playing in developing the U.S. positioning on NAFTA. The NCAI did not respond to a request for comment.

Indigenous peoples in Mexico shut out

Mario Luna, a representative for the Congreso Nacional Indigena, an organization representing 58 Indigenous nations and communities in Mexico, said the Mexican government has made no attempt to gather their input on NAFTA talks.

"This is the first time I heard about these themes and I've been asking," said Luna.

"They are doing it in secret."

Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, known as MariChuy, centre, is a presidential candidate for the National Indigenous Congress. Many of Mexico's voiceless, impoverished indigenous people see Patricio as a way to assert their own voice in politics. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Luna said he has confidence that Indigenous representatives from Canada will work to protect Indigenous rights.

"But we can't leave it to others. It is necessary that we inform ourselves about what is happening," he said.

"We may have to leave Mexico to do it."

Luna said the Mexican government generally excludes Indigenous peoples from any decisions and often runs roughshod over rights by granting mining rights and approving projects on Indigenous territory without any consultation.

To counter this, the organization is backing an Indigenous woman, Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, as an independent candidate in the 2018 presidential elections. He said they need a million signatures to put her on the ballot. They have about 70,000 signatures so far with a Feb. 19 deadline looming.

"I think we will be able to get there," he said.

"Despite these obstacles."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him