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Nation Builder of the Decade, Public Life (Jeff Bassett)
Nation Builder of the Decade, Public Life (Jeff Bassett)

Nation Builder: Public Life

Clarence Louie Add to ...

Clarence Louie

Birthplace: Near Oliver, B.C.

Age: 49

Clarence Louie became the chief of the Osoyoos band in 1985 and has only lost one election since, in 1989. He just won his tenth straight race this year.

There are no oil riches, nor are there veins of gold to be found on Canada's most successful native reserve.

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In fact, the land of the Osoyoos band in the Okanagan Valley straddles this country's only true desert - hardly an auspicious starting point for an aboriginal economic revolution.

Yet that is exactly what has taken place in the B.C. Interior this decade, driven by Chief Clarence Louie, the vanguard of a new generation of aboriginal leaders far more interested in creating jobs for their members than in endless litigation or lobbying. From a desert, Chief Louie has built a thriving economy, one based not on what he calls "rocking chair money" from natural resources, but on a series of businesses that have provided permanent jobs, a sense of dignity - and profits for the band. The chief and his band have built up the successful Nk'Mip winery, the first aboriginal-owned vintner in North America, a par-72 golf course, a four-star resort and spa, and a number of other vibrant businesses.

At peak tourist season, there is essentially full employment among the 450 members of the Osoyoos reserve, and federal welfare payments have dropped significantly. That alone is a remarkable achievement, given the rampant unemployment and marginal jobs on many reserves. It's even more exceptional when you contrast the track record of the Osoyoos with that of other reserves in Western Canada, which tend to rely on their adjacency to natural resources to generate jobs.

But Chief Louie's influence extends far beyond the 32,000 acres of Osoyoos land. Conservatives of all stripes hail the chief for his pragmatic approach to job creation, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who lauded him in his 2008 budget speech and includes him in his annual budget consultations.

Chief Louie is no doctrinaire right-winger, however. He calls his approach "community capitalism," in which everyone works hard to make the biggest profits possible, but for the common good of the band, not individual enrichment. That means taking some pragmatic steps that might not sit well on other reserves, such as hiring outsiders when needed as senior managers for band enterprises.

Calvin Helin, author of Dances with Dependency , a book critical of traditional native politics, praises Chief Louie for helping to sweep away the fog of political correctness that kept aboriginal leaders from talking bluntly about economic dependency.

The Osoyoos chief, although in his late 40s, is emblematic of a new generation of aboriginal leaders who emphasize education, small-scale economic development - and hard work.

Chief Louie is not known as a talker, but when he does speak, he makes those words count. "Today, being a warrior means being self-supporting. Not living on welfare," he told an Alberta audience last year.

For too long and on too many reserves, unemployment has eaten away at the economic and social foundations of aboriginal society. And the future promises to be worse, with the rapidly growing number of young aboriginals. But the path Chief Louie has cut through the desert shows that there is a way to combine aboriginal traditions with mainstream economic prosperity.

Patrick Brethour is The Globe's British Columbia editor.

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