Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde addresses the 74th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 17, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
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National Congress of American Indians backs Native component for trade agreement

The National Congress of American Indians is joining its sister organization across the northern border in seeking a Native component for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

By a voice vote and through a written resolution, tribal leaders last week endorsed efforts by the Assembly of First Nations in Canada to update the agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA. They took action after hearing from AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“Indigenous people were the first traders,” Bellegarde said last Tuesday at NCAI's 74th annual convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada were left out of NAFTA, which went into effect in January 1994. By adding a Native-specific "chapter" to the agreement, they hope their sovereignty and economic interests will be recognized by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the other signatory.

"The tribes were never consulted when they put the border in there," stated Sheilah Cleveland, a council member from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Her tribe's homelands in Washington state and the province in British Columbia were essentially cut in half by the northern border.

But a Native addition to NAFTA appears to be in doubt because President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw the U.S. altogether from the partnership unless his demands are met. A set of objectives were outlined in a July 17 document released by his administration.

"We'll see what happens," Trump told reporters on October 11, when asked whether NAFTA is "dead." "We have a tough negotiation, and it's something that you will know in the not-too-distant future."

Canada has already said it wants to bring Native issues to the table in any renegotiation of NAFTA. Bellegarde is an adviser to Canada's team, overseen by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has enjoyed mostly strong relations with First Nations.

The U.S. hasn't developed an official position. But the July document endorses the federal government's contracting preferences for tribal and Native businesses, commonly known as the 8(a) program.

The first round of negotiations between the U.S., Canada and Mexico took place in mid-August in Washington, D.C.

"We have an incredibly close relationship -- two countries that are interwoven in our economies, cultures, and in our peoples," Trudeau said in October.

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