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The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is asking the federal government to consider moving parts of a promised Indigenous chapter to other parts of a renewed North American Free Trade Agreement after negotiators dropped the separate section in ongoing talks.

In a letter sent to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland last Friday, Perry Bellegarde said that excluding the chapter – designed to recognize and protect inherent and treaty rights – would be a “lost opportunity” for the country and for efforts on economic reconciliation with First Nations.

The U.S. and Canada have been working towards finding common ground on reflecting the rights of Indigenous people and women in a renewed NAFTA, but sources with knowledge of the talks say distinct chapters on each fell off the table earlier this year.

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Bellegarde’s letter laments the promise “may not come to fruition.”

Elements from a proposed Indigenous chapter “could be moved to other chapters” of the agreement, Bellegarde said in his letter – an alternative approach being explored, according to sources who spoke to The Canadian Press under condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of talks.

“Although First Nations will be disappointed not to see a specific chapter for Indigenous Peoples, there are other provisions in NAFTA where Canada must improve upon to benefit First Nations interests,” Bellegarde wrote.

The idea of a backup plan is something Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said he has heard through stakeholders despite radio silence from the Liberals about the fate of the Indigenous chapter.

When NAFTA negotiations began 13 months ago, Freeland personally thanked Bellegarde for the suggestion of an Indigenous chapter, adding her officials were “very enthusiastic” about it.

Freeland spokesperson Adam Austen said the Liberals still believe in the principles outlined at the beginning of negotiations, but he wouldn’t provide any details on the fate of the Indigenous chapter because the minister and U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer have agreed not speak public about the specifics of talks.

For his part, Bellegarde argued it makes economic sense to include Indigenous rights in all trade pacts, acknowledging other sensitive topics are being discussed, including protections for Canada’s dairy industry.

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“If it doesn’t make its way (in) because President (Donald) Trump is – let’s just say – a little challenging to negotiate with, we won’t stop on getting this chapter within NAFTA, but also other international trade agreements,” he said in an interview this week.

Wayne Garnons-Williams, a Plains Cree Indian and founding president of the International Intertribal Trade Organization made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous trade experts, said he sees no rational reason why the chapter should be removed from a renegotiated NAFTA.

“The communities that are directly impacted by this trade chapter are already in favour of it,” he said.

“One has to superimpose the elements of what we are dealing with this current U.S. administration ... but I have not heard a reason why they would deny something that is beneficial to their own Indigenous communities.”

Canada and the United States are trying to renegotiate their portion of the three-country trade pact, which is tied to the fate of numerous jobs, under an Oct. 1 deadline to provide a text of an agreement to Congress.

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