“Our people have to get from the mentality of spending money to making money.”
That’s part of the message Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band conveyed during his keynote address to the 125 delegates attending the annual Northern Networks trade conference last Thursday afternoon at La Place Rendez-Vous.
Chief Louie has been the elected leader of the Okanagan Valley, B.C. band since 1985 and under his direction, it has become a multi-faceted corporation that owns and manages multiple businesses, including a four-star resort and spa, golf course, a native cultural centre, a high-end winery and hundreds of acres of top quality vineyards, a gas station and convenience store, and a construction company and concrete plant that provide employment for every band member who wanted a job.
Chief Louie said the economy always is the number-one issue with the provincial and federal government, and he wants it to be the number-one issue with First Nations.
There are one million indigenous people across Canada, half of whom live in 2,400 reserves. Many of those reserves are plagued with poverty, substandard housing, and unemployment.
But Chief Louie said this could change if the emphasis shifted from social services to deal with the effects of poverty to creating jobs to get rid of poverty, adding just as most non-native people want to work, so do most native people.
He noted the federal funding formula for First Nations is 96 percent social spending and just four percent for economic development, stressing poverty won’t end if only four percent of a budget is put towards economic development.
“Our people have to get from the mentality of spending money to making money,” he argued. “If we can get that mindshift from spending money to making money, there won’t be aboriginal poverty in Canada.
“We’ll be contributing to the economy.”
Chief Louie said First Nations’ people have to start hanging around those who are used to making money, and stop waiting for cheques in the mail.
“I am not saying the federal government doesn’t owe native people federal transfer dollars,” he clarified, adding once a band wins a land claim, they have to know how to spend the money wisely.
Chief Louie said he toured Rainy River First Nations on Thursday morning and was impressed with what they’ve done, ranging from the new pow-wow grounds to Manitou Forest Products.
“Manitou Forest Products is a class operation,” he lauded. “That just shows anybody in Fort Frances you don’t have to be scared of First Nations’ people getting involved in economic development.
“I think it makes more sense to have a rich neighbour than it does a poor neighbour,” he reasoned.
Referring to land claim issues, such as the ongoing one at Pither’s Point, Chief Louie said the issues “have to be worked through in a manner that shows respect on both sides.”
“I hope the issue here can be worked through,” he added.
He noted Osoyoos had to buy back its lands. And while some band members felt they shouldn’t have to buy back what originally was theirs, Chief Louie said that is like believing in a “fantasy world.”
“I have been chief for 20-some odd years and I’ll never see a white person walk into my office and say, ‘Oh, you poor Indian. Here’s your land back.’ That’s never gonna happen,” he stressed.
“I hope you guys can settle your disagreement here. But you have to take the time to understand the history of this region,” he later added.
Chief Louie said municipalities should not fear natives buying land and creating “urban reserves,” pointing out Rainy River First Nations and two other bands own a strip mall in Fort Frances, and have been doing business inside the municipal boundary for 12 years.
“Non-native business people don’t have to be scared—‘Ooh, the Indians are coming’ . . . . We can do good business together,” he remarked.
“I want to see a business relationship with the federal government, I want to see a business relationship with the provincial government, I want to see a business relationship with corporate Canada. That’s what I want to see,” Chief Louie added.
“I don’t want to see a dependency relationship. Dependency relationships do not work.”
Chief Louie said some reserves have an unemployment rate of 30 percent, with Chief Chuck McPherson telling him that Couchiching First Nation here has an unemployment rate of 40-50 percent—numbers non-native communities would never stand for.
First Nation communities should have the same unemployment rate as their neighbouring non-native communities, he reasoned, adding that very successful native initiatives, like Manitou Forest Products and those in Osoyoos, actually employ non-natives in addition to natives.
Economic development for natives also means more money is spent in the neighbouring communities, thus making it beneficial to non-native businesses, said Chief Louie, adding that if Couchiching only had single digit unemployment rates, every business in Fort Frances would be better for it.
As well, Chief Louie stressed the importance of keeping natives in the loop when it comes to local business, adding Chambers of Commerce and economic development conferences should have First Nations’ representation.
Economic development is the key to improving life for First Nation communities, said Chief Louie, explaining the money made should be used to purchase land, revitalize traditional languages, enhance traditional ceremonies, and allow for environmental and natural resource management.
It also should support health care, housing, and education, create economic diversity, and pay for lawyers.
Chief Louie said he wants non-natives everywhere to be able to go their neighbouring native community and say, “I can’t believe I am on an Indian reserve.”