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Indigenous rights at risk as Canada-China Free Trade Agreement talks begin February 20

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Charles Burton, a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, writes in The Globe and Mai this morning, “Like it or not, Canada opens exploratory free-trade talks with China on Monday with an initial four-day session in Beijing. Opinion polls indicate most Canadians do not want further political-economic integration with China, but elements of Canada’s business elite, with lucrative connections to Chinese business networks, are lobbying the Prime Minister’s Office hard to push on.”

In December 2015, China’s ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui, stated, “At the policy level, we need to start the negotiation and conclusion of a free trade agreement sooner rather than later.” In June 2016, The Globe and Mail reported, “[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] has made re-engagement with China a key foreign policy initiative as his government presses for a free-trade deal with the world’s second-largest economy.”

A free trade agreement with China would likely include an ‘investment protection’ provision that would make it that much harder to subsequently constrain the growth of the tar sands or to reject new pipelines.

A new deal would also strengthen a similar provision in the Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA).

The Hupacasath First Nation, a 300-member nation located on Vancouver Island, has stated that the Canadian government failed to consult First Nations before signing the Canada-China FIPA in 2012. They argued in Federal Court that FIPA, notably its investor-state provision, could be used to override Indigenous rights and give the balance of power in questions of resource management to corporations rather than affected communities. In short, they said, FIPA was an infringement on their inherent Aboriginal Title and Rights.

In August 2013 the Federal Court of Canada rejected their claim as did a subsequent Federal Court of Appeal decision in January 2015. The courts ruled that the First Nation had not established “a causal relationship” between FIPA and its “asserted rights”, that any effects of the Canada-China FIPA were “speculative”, and that Canada therefore did not have a duty to consult.

But China is clearly interested in oil and gas resources in Canada – and that invariably impacts Indigenous rights.

The Globe and Mail has noted, “China wants to forge a historic free-trade deal with Canada, but a senior Chinese official said this will require Canadian concessions on investment restrictions [notably in the oil and gas sector] and a commitment to build an energy pipeline to the coast.” In September 2016, CTV reported, “[Former Conservative prime minister Brian] Mulroney says that growing trade between Canada and China depends on Trudeau approving the Energy East Pipeline. Mulroney [says] Trudeau ‘could have a nation building exercise that would then allow him to service the Chinese and others more beneficially for Canada’, if Energy East and other pipelines are built.”

In September 2016, more than 50 Indigenous nations signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion that vows to block all proposed pipeline, tanker and rail projects that impact First Nations land and water. That opposition extends to the Energy East project as well as the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

In February 2013, Chinese state-owned CNOOC Ltd. purchased the Canadian oil and gas giant Nexen Inc. for $15.1 billion. At that time, Reuters reported, “[With this takeover} CNOOC gains control of Nexen’s Long Lake oil sands project in the oil-rich province of Alberta, as well as billions of barrels of reserves in the world’s third-largest crude storehouse – the oil sands in the province of Alberta.” And in August 2009, PetroChina Co. Ltd. (whose parent company is the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp.) bought a 60 per cent interest in two undeveloped projects near Fort McMurray that contain an estimated 5 billion barrels of tar sands oil.

The Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations are strongly opposed to current and proposed tar sands mines on their territories.

The Council of Canadians opposes a Canada-China Free Trade Agreement and sees it as detrimental to people and the environment in both Canada and China. We support the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples, notably the right to free, prior and informed consent.