Timely Reminders from Chief Louie

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

“Our ancestors worked for a living,” says Clarence Louie, Chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C’s Okanagan Valley. “So should you.”

Such bold statements fall regularly from the lips of Chief Louie, who heads the most economically successful First Nation in Canada. A recent Globe and Mail portrait of this self-described “stay-at-home” Chief included these words addressed to fellow aboriginals:

  • “If life sucks, it’s because you suck.”
  • “Quit your sniffling.”
  • “Join the real world. Go to school or get a job.”
  • “Get off welfare.”
  • “Get off your butt.”
  • If this advice came from anybody else, it would surely be thought offensive, even racist. But Chief Louie is considered one of the most innovative leaders in Indian country.

    Now 44, when he became Chief in 1986 his band had been declared bankrupt and taken over by Indian Affairs. Today his community of 434 is completely self-sufficient, with zero unemployment and workers imported from 13 other nearby tribes. The Osoyoos own a vineyard, a winery and a golf course, and are partners in a huge ski resort. They contribute about $40 million a year to the local economy.

    Along the way, the blunt Chief has won numerous awards. He’s been featured in the Economist and Profit magazines, and in 2003 Maclean’s magazine named him one of 50 Canadians to watch. And there’s more to his success than his tough, shoot-from-the-hip style of talking. The rampant nepotism and slack work rules so common in other First Nations’ businesses play no part in this First Nation. Key to the band’s economic self-sufficiency is the separation of political leaders from day-to-day control over band enterprises.

    The Osoyoos Indian Band Business Development Corporation, owner of nine companies employing more than 1,000 people, has not one Indian on its board of directors. Business isn’t about race, Louie explains, it’s about expertise: “There’s a group of natives that feels entitled, and that needs to be changed to a culture of performance. You don’t hand over the keys to a multi-million-dollar business to someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s a recipe for bankruptcy.”

    By keeping their eyes on the bottom line, Louie’s people have earned the respect of outside investors. “Their word is their deed,” says the CEO of the Osoyoos’ corporate partner in a new four-star spa. The Chief and his people have negotiated their way around the messy conflicts about land titles and contract enforcement that dog so many aboriginal enterprises under self-government.

    Chief Louie has no patience with aboriginals fixated on past wrongs and sticking Band-Aids on the consequences of poverty. “I like dealing in reality,” he says. “A lot of elders still hold up the British flag and talk about promises made a hundred years ago. Personally, I don’t have any faith in the Queen.”

    Nor does he make apologies to those who say he’s abandoned native values. “There’s no culture in poverty,” he reminds them, and chides those who follow the “red road” while collecting a social assistance cheque. The community built the beautiful, $2.5-million beautiful Nk’Mip Desert and First Nations Heritage Centre to promote aboriginal culture and history. Every Christmas the band distributes a dividend to band members, 12-percent of its business profits.

    This cultural imperative — that all citizens should contribute and share — was a normal part of life when I grew up in the Northern Manitoba railway community of Gillam. Band councils created by the federal government would eventually replace “Indian Agents,” but there was very little money in the pipes and nobody wanted to be Chief.

    Ours was Wesley Neepin, employed full-time as a section foreman for the CNR, whose responsibilities were to hand out rifle ammunition, gasoline for outboard motors, nets for fishing and little else. The squabbles that currently divide many reserves did not exist, as government money did not yet exist. We have now lost our way.

    As the money grew, along with the powers of the band council, we adopted the white man’s way of governing and his election practices. We learned that Ottawa did not closely monitor how we spent taxpayer dollars. We paid ourselves handsomely, in some cases more than the Prime Minister, yet no one seemed to care. Our people got used to seeing their leaders spend lots of money traveling to the city and other far off places each Monday and returning each Friday.

    We were told they were working to improve our lives, but the results speak for themselves — housing shortages, unclean water, no jobs, poor health and education services, lousy roads and, most of all, little accountability. Despite our expensive apparatus of tribal council offices, human rights abuses are rampant. Some Chiefs want to open embassies in other countries, more destinations for more great trips.

    In contrast, Chief Louie avoids national politics. He’s not planning to block any rail lines or mount sit-ins to demand more land. He says the time has come “to get over it,” and stop whining over 100-year-old failed experiments. Instead, he wants to fix all the pot-holes at home.

    The Osoyoos have chosen a better path.