As Chief of BC’s Osoyoos First Nation, Clarence Louie may be running one of the most successful Native governments in North America, but he still thinks there is room for improvement in his community. The modesty is charming, but it was also contradicted by a prestigious honour he recently received.
Louie will travel to Toronto February 15 to receive a 2011 Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame award from the Council for Aboriginal Business.
“It was good news for the band, which is the way that I always look at it. It is good advertising and good recognition, particularly for our tourism operations, which always need more business and customers,” Louie said about the award.
Despite the accolades, Louie’s mind is never far from making the next dollar for his people or promoting the many successful businesses on his reserve. This may just be part of the secret to his success.
The Osoyoos First Nation is among the richest in all of Canada, and this has come through a series of homegrown businesses rather than trading off natural resources to government or industry.
With a vineyard, a golf course, a thriving hotel resort, a construction company and a ready-made cement firm, among others, the Osoyoos have to import workers from other First Nations during high season to meet the employment demands. Needless to say, according to Louie, the unemployment rate on the reserve is in the single digits.
“We have more band business than any other band on a per capita basis in Canada or the United States, which is really, really an accomplishment. Of course, the location, we have to admit, is unique and so also is the fact that most of our land is band land as opposed to having it cut up into a checker board allotment which occurs in a lot of bands,” said Louie.
The vineyards were the band’s first major company and over the years they have expanded significantly. It has since become one of the biggest privately owned vineyards in Canada with 300+ acres under cultivation. The band also leases out another 1000 acres to various major wineries in the country. The winery at the vineyards is also under a joint venture with Jackson Triggs of Ontario and it has been on reserve land since 1980. As the band owns the building and leases the land, it creates hundreds of jobs on the reserve.
While the Osoyoos Band can already boast a series of profitable businesses, they are still looking to expand. They are in the process of completing a $10 million enterprise park to attract more non-Native businesses to the reserve to lease property. They are also in the process of building a luxury housing project for non-Natives surrounding their golf course.
According to Louie, the secret to his success as Chief of his people for the last 24 years is that his band has always had an economic development mandate.
“Almost every successful chief and council has had an economic development mandate and our people want to work. Our people want jobs and don’t want to be on welfare or be dependant on any level of government to provide for our needs and services,” said Louie.
While his reserve is not immune to social problems such as crime or drug and alcohol dependency, these problems are significantly less serious than at almost any other reserve in Canada. The low unemployment also makes the First Nation much more prosperous. In turn, the Osoyoos peoples’ social infrastructure is very well funded, lessening the need for federal or provincial support.
“If you read Billy Diamond’s book, one of the major lessons I got out of it was that economic development is the key to extending Native rights because economic development goes further than jobs and money,” said Louie who has lived by this idealism.
Louie has twice travelled to the James Bay Cree communities as a guest speaker. He says he thinks highly of the James Bay Crees’ success in economic development initiatives. He was a big fan of both the late Billy Diamond and his late brother Albert. It is his hope that the Cree, as well as every other First Nation in Canada, can one day experience the same benefits of success that his people have enjoyed.
While Louie may be proud of his latest accomplishment with his Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame award, his mind never strays far from his target, to be even more successful so that his people can advance even further.
“Half of our operations are in a competitive league and so I can applaud that but we still have a long way to go and a lot of improving to do and a lot of shaping up to do,” said Louie.