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This agreement has been denounced and applauded by the parties on all sides. The issue has potential to become either the saviour of Canadians or its destruction, depending on which side one hears.
Instead of entering the debate, we must examine the impact this agreement will have on the Indian nations and straddle both sides of the American-Canadian border. When the map was drawn between Canada and the United States, the Indian Nations existed on both sides of the border and in many cases, families, tribes, and bands were all split up and one group became Canadian and another group became American. But the fact remains we are all Indian nations with a common heritage.
Delia Opikekew, a former Saskatchewan resident and now a lawyer in Toronto, feels that the free trade agreement will have a positive effect on the Indian nations. Ms. Opikekew states, "The American's law has been much more respectful of Indian sovereignty. There are studies and cases that date back from the 19th century, where Indian nations had been recognized as domestic sovereign states. She feels that as the two countries become close together through the free trade agreement, there will be a need for the two nations to have similar laws in order to accommodate business purposes. This will have a natural spill over onto other areas and the Indian law in Canada should become much more similar to that of the American law in the United States.
Delia feels that if they are recognized as domestic sovereign states. This will open up independence for Indians, and we could be in a very exciting time, as Indian Government could be implemented at a much rapid pace.
Projects in the United States such as Indian regulated bingo halls, tribal law courts and much more Indian control over business and the economy will spill over into Canadian law to the benefit of Canadian Indians.
The Assembly of First Nations, on the other hand, disagrees and in a presentation, the Standing Committee on International Trade and Commerce on November 18, 1987, the AFN denounced the free trade agreement and presented three areas of concern:
Firstly, benefits from land claims or other sources of government used to support Indian business interests will be construed as subsidies and subject to counterveil. The AFN feels that special programs in Manpower, the Department of Indian Affairs and the Native Economic Development Program will be construed as subsidies by the Americans seen as unfair competition and subject to dispute and eventual replacement. In brief, the AFN went on to describe Indian business as being ill- equipped to deal with the transition to free trade. Stating statistics such as only six percent of Indian businesses have more than 10 employees in a national economy, and the survival rate of Indian businesses is very low, 56 percent of Indian businesses are under five years old and nationally, only 17 percent of firms are less than five years old. Also, Indians serve a small population and small markets and have a very limited growth. If restrictions are placed on Indian assistance through government programs, the Indian business community will surely suffer and remain stunted and underdeveloped.
The second area of concern involves the agreement on Continental Energy Sharing which would involve First nations jurisdiction over water, gas, oil and wood. The AFN takes the position that much of the resources of Canada still remain in Indian hands either under Treaty or unsettled land claims and the agreement of an energy sharing policy between Canada and the United States involves products that are not necessarily theirs.
"As we see it, Canadian policy and decision making power will be eroded by the free trade agreement. As a result it will be much harder to settle land claims if the interests of the United States government are to be accounted for. After all, many of the resources involved in deal original from lands still under dispute."
However, in an NEDP funded joint Native Council of Canada - AFN study into the effects of free trade, a number of recommendations were made in support of the free trade agreement and the process of implementation. The study called for a number of recommendations which included participation of the First nations at all levels on advisory committees and at the high level with the negotiating parties. As the agreement comes into effect, a number of advisory committees will be established to assist in the implementation.
The report recommends that native people become involved and push for such things as rescinding portions of the 1972 Marine and Mammals Protection Act which calls for a ban on importation of Canadian whale products in the United States, even though these products are art objects created by Inuit people. Also, the Jay Treaty should be modernized and implemented on a commercial scale.
The report also recommends there should be unimpeded access to the markets of the First nations in North American. We should include the Inuit on both sides of the American border and Alaska and in Canada, the various Indian nations should straddle the border such as the six nations, the Blackfoot, the Cree, the Ojibway and so on.
Ken Thomas, manager of the SIAP Program in Saskatchewan feels that free trade would be good for the Indian agricultural sector.
"Most agricultural producer organizations have determined that free trade is good for them and it was discussed and informally at a board meeting at SIAP, and it was felt that support would be forthcoming, since it was good for the Indian agricultural sector"
Throughout the free trade debate, there becomes a pattern that the issue broadens out beyond straight economics. The question of industrial subsidies to Indian industries and businesses must be protected. The social issues must be protected and strengthened in Canada. If free trade means equality, then Canadian social services will slip to the level of those in the United States.
Issues such as Medi-care, Indian education, special programs in Health and Welfare for alcohol abuse and so on, all become lumped in as states supported services which are paid for by the Government in Canada that paid for by the individual or the private sector in the United States. If the agreement calls for parody in social programs, Indian people who are generally considered large users of social programs, will have to rely on the strength of the Treaties to make sure their social programming is protected for the Indian people.
The free trade debate will continue for some time to come. Late this year, the First Ministers' will give their commitment on implementation. January 02, 1988, the Prime Minister will sign the agreement. Throughout the year the two governments in Canada and the United States will go through their various ratification processes. It will be put into force in 1989.
By simply putting the agreement into force will not mean complete free trade overnight, but rather it will be a phased in agreement, where tariff's are released on a certain percentage over a certain number of years.
Indian people have an excellent opportunity to become involved as the process unfolds. Whether it is given to us or whether we take it, remain to be seen.