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Harley-Davidson-riding Clarence Louie is chief of the Osoyoos Band, which owns the Spirit Ridge Resort, the surrounding vineyards, the winery next door and a championship golf course. (Roy MacGregor/The Globe and Mail)
Harley-Davidson-riding Clarence Louie is chief of the Osoyoos Band, which owns the Spirit Ridge Resort, the surrounding vineyards, the winery next door and a championship golf course. (Roy MacGregor/The Globe and Mail)

The best native leader Canada never had Add to ...

The sun beats down on Canada’s only desert – sagebrush on the far hills, rattlesnake warnings along the paths – and the luxury resort surrounded by ripening vineyards is packed with summer visitors.

A young blond woman wearing a small dress and large rings moves across the street toward a brand new Range Rover (from $119,990 at your local dealership) but halts suddenly, startled by the thunder of a Harley-Davidson rumbling down the paved approach to the resort.

She steps back and stares, slightly aghast. The motorcycle driver is dark and solid and wears a helmet featuring the face of Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief and holy man whose visions led to the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 and who was later shot and killed by U.S. Indian agents. The driver calls the motorcycle Crazy Horse, after the Sioux leader who brought down Custer.

The man on the Harley is Clarence Louie, chief of the Osoyoos Band, which owns the Spirit Ridge Resort, the surrounding vineyards, the winery next door and the championship golf course in the distance.

He is, in no small part, the creator of the Osoyoos Miracle in the Desert.

“Let us put our minds together,” Chief Louie’s great hero Sitting Bull once said, “and see what we can make for our children.”

Clarence Louie’s other great native hero is Billy Diamond, the Canadian First Nations leader who forged the James Bay Agreement in the mid-1970s and brought prosperity and an airline to the Crees of Northern Quebec.

Like Mr. Diamond, who died at age 61 four years ago, Clarence Louie may be the best national native leader the country never had – an intriguing thought during a summer in which First Nations’ leadership has rarely seemed on more uncertain grounds. Mr. Louie has no national ambition despite being only 54.

“I don’t really think about Canada,” he says. “I’ve got my hands full with my own issues. A lot of chiefs like travelling – I don’t know why. Business travel got boring to me pretty damn quick. I like staying on the ‘rez’ here. I just like creating jobs and making money.”

When first elected chief in 1984, he was paid $250 a month. Today, as chief, he is paid $18,000 a year, though this month’s disclosures under the new Transparency Act have him listed at $146,369 for last year. While he agrees with disclosing what taxpayers rightly regard as tax money, he takes serious issue with having to disclose First Nation’s self-generated income: His additional compensation comes from operating as administrator of the successful band and as CEO of the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp.

“Once again,” he says, “First Nations are being treated like ‘wards of the state,’ whereby the old ‘Indian Agent’ mentality still exists. The federal government still feels the need to control and pry into everything (including our privately owned business and privately generated income) and at the same time announces year after year in the Speech from the Throne that First Nations must take their rightful place in Canada’s rich economy and compete in the business world.”

In a week in which one chief’s salary of nearly $1-million created national outrage, the Fraser Institute immediately defended the Osoyoos chief, saying “Louie and his staff are worth every penny and it would be pound-foolish to be upset at his compensation.”

Mr. Louie first rose to national attention a decade ago when he was featured in a Globe and Mail column in which he brusquely told an Alberta conference on aboriginal economic development: “My first rule for success is, ‘Show up on time.’ My No. 2 rule for success is, ‘Follow Rule No. 1.’”

His blunt message reverberated throughout First Nations and beyond. “Our ancestors worked for a living,” he told the conference, “so should you.”

Clarence Louie’s own work ethic came from his mother, Lucy, a single mom who raised a half dozen of her own and others’ children. He believes there is a fair, if surprising, comparison to be made between isolated Canadian reserves and inner-city America. “Black people are like natives,” he says. “They’re mostly raised by single moms and most of the people who get in trouble are young men.”

While the chief went to university for native studies and is respectful of native culture, there is nothing he believes in as much as discipline. Lucy Louie, still alive and thriving, kept her children in line at home and they learned to work in the vineyards, which then supplied grapes to various wineries.

“Summertime wasn’t play time,” he says. “We started working at 11 or 12 years of age, and at four and five in the morning because there’s no shade in the Okanagan. It was good training grounds.”

Clarence Louie returned from university to become chief of the band while in his early 20s. He was unprepared, lost an election and then came back with a resolve that transformed the desert around Osoyoos Lake. The band went from poverty, soaring unemployment and bankruptcy to a shining success story, even hiring natives from 36 other bands across the Prairies, B.C. and the territories.

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