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'Indian Time doesn't cut it' for innovative chief with on-the-edge humour Add to ...

The man with the PowerPoint presentation is miffed.

He is speaking to a large aboriginal conference and some of the attendees, including a few who hold high office, have straggled in.

"I can't stand people who are late," he says into the microphone.

"Indian Time doesn't cut it."

Some giggle, but no one is quite sure how far he is going to go. Just sit back and listen:

"My first rule for success is 'Show up on time.' My No. 2 rule for success is follow Rule No. 1."

"If your life sucks, it's because you suck."

"Quit your sniffling."

"Join the real world - go to school or get a job."

"Get off of welfare. Get off your butt."

He pauses, seeming to gauge whether he dare, then does.

"People often say to me, 'How you doin'?' Geez - I'm working with Indians - what do you think?"

Now they are openly laughing ... applauding. Clarence Louie is everything that was advertised - and more.

"Our ancestors worked for a living," he says. "So should you."

He is, fortunately, aboriginal himself. If someone else stood up and said these things - the white columnist standing there with his mouth open, for example - "You'd be seen as a racist." Instead, Chief Clarence Louie is seen, increasingly, as one of the most interesting and innovative native leaders in the country - even though he avoids national politics.

He has come here to Fort McMurray because the aboriginal community needs, desperately, to start talking about economic development and what all this multibillion-dollar oil madness might mean, for good and for bad.

Clarence Louie is chief - and CEO - of the Osoyoos Band in British Columbia's South Okanagan. He is 44 years old, though he looks like he would have been an infant when he began his remarkable 20-year-run as chief. He took a band that had been declared bankrupt and taken over by Indian Affairs and he has turned in into an inspiration.

In 2000, the band set a goal of becoming self-sufficient in five years. They're there.

The Osoyoos, 432 strong, own, among other things, a vineyard, a winery, a golf course and a tourist resort, and they are partners in the Baldy Mountain ski development. They have more businesses per capita than any first nation in Canada.

There are not only enough jobs for everyone, there are so many jobs being created that there are now members of 13 other tribal communities working for the Osoyoos. The little band contributes $40-million a year to the area economy.

Chief Louie is tough. He is as proud of the fact that his band fires its own people as well as hires them. He has his mottos pasted throughout the "Rez." He believes there is "no such thing as consensus," that there will always be those who disagree. And, he says, he is milquetoast compared to his own mother when it comes to how today's lazy aboriginal youth, almost exclusively male, should be dealt with.

"Rent a plane," she told him, "and fly them all to Iraq. Dump 'em off and all the ones who make it back are keepers. Right on, Mom."

The message he has brought here to the Chipewyan, Dene and Cree who live around the oil sands is equally direct: Get involved, create jobs - and meaningful jobs, not just "window dressing" for the oil companies.

"The biggest employer," he says, "shouldn't be the band office."

He also says the time has come to "get over it." No more whining about 100-year-old failed experiments. No foolishly looking to the Queen to protect rights.

Louie says aboriginals here and along the Mackenzie Valley should not look at any sharing in development as "rocking-chair money" but as investment opportunity to create sustainable businesses. He wants them to move beyond entry-level jobs to real jobs they "earn" - all the way to the boardrooms. He wants to see "business manners" develop: showing up on time, working extra hours. The business lunch, he says, should be "drive through," and then right back at it.

"You're going to lose your language and culture faster in poverty than you will in economic development," he says to those who say he is ignoring tradition.

Tough talk, at times shocking talk given the audience, but on this day in this community, they took it - and, judging by the response, they loved it.

"Eighty per cent like what I have to say," Louie says, "Twenty per cent don't. I always say to the 20 per cent, 'Get over it. Chances are you're never going to see me again and I'm never going to see you again. Get some counselling.'"

The first step, he says, is all about leadership. He prides himself on being "a stay-home chief who looks after the potholes in his own backyard" and wastes no time "running around fighting 100-year-old battles.

"The biggest challenge will be how you treat your own people.

"Blaming government? That time is over."

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

 

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