The180·The 180

A free trade proposal for aboriginal communities

Akwesasne Mohawk journalist Doug George-Kanentiio says a treaty from 1794 could unlock economic growth in aboriginal communities in Canada and the United States.
Welcome to Canada sign (Angela MacIvor/CBC)

The federal government has promised to build a new nation-to-nation relationship with aboriginal Canadians. 
That promise includes a 500-million-dollar investment in First Nations education infrastructure, equitable funding for child and family services on reserves, and the removal of the two percent funding cap for First Nations programs. 

 Akwesasne Mohawk journalist Doug George-Kanentiio says he has a better idea for how to improve economic conditions in Aboriginal communities. He believes the answer has been under our noses since the negotiation of the Jay Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation back in 1794.

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

You argue that Canada can improve economic conditions in aboriginal communities by formally recognizing the Jay Treaty, which was signed by the British and the Americans way back after the American Revolution. What does that treaty have to do with aboriginal economic prosperity? 

The treaty specifically says that aboriginal people have the right to cross the international border with their goods-- their persons and their goods. And to us that meant that we had the right to control our own economic destinies.

So the treaty grants you the right of free passage across the border for you and your goods without being subjected to any toll. How does that compare to what's actually happening today? 

It creates incredible tensions along the border, because the Canadian customs officials who are bound by policies passed in Ottawa, they vigorously enforce Canadian import rules. When we bring up Jay Treaty, they say, well, that doesn't apply here. It just leads to a lot of arguments and physical confrontations, and in a sad way, it has also led to the rise of a narco-smuggling culture that has come to dominate the economics of eastern Ontario and northern New York. Smuggling is rooted in the Jay Treaty, because Canada refuses to find another way so our people are bound to respond to market conditions, and they do... and it creates a whole network of Mohawk criminals. So many of our people, including my own brothers, have been incarcerated, because they maintain they have a right to do this under Jay Treaty and Canada says no. 

You argue it would make strong economic sense for Canada to go back and recognize the Jay Treaty. Can you give us some tangible examples of economic activity that you believe would be activated if this treaty was recognized? 

Sure. There's a big problem with food delivery services and aboriginal people and Inuit people getting adequate food -- and then being gouged when they do secure food that has to be transported at length. What we proposed at Akwesasne a generation ago in the mid-80s was the formation of a national native free trade zone, that would include native nations in the United States and Canada and would formally create an institution by which goods, ideas, and technologies could flow freely across the border. We would say that we could cut costs, administrative costs by having Akwesasne, for instance, because of our geographical locale, become a warehouse for things that are needed in the north and the west. We could transport those goods at considerably reduced costs from our community to those people who are in the greatest need. 

It almost sounds like the creation of a Native American free trade agreement -- like NAFTA, but for aboriginal groups across the continent. 

That's exactly right. And I think that's the key that's before us now. That can unlock enormous economic potential across aboriginal Canada, because we do sit on vital natural resources, but how do we get those resources from our territory to market without having to deal with and having to allocate the greater part of the profits from that to external agencies and companies? How do we control it ourselves? 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.