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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 ...

Mr. Louie is quick to note the band’s No. 1 advantage – “location, location, location” – but it took far more than luck, climate and proximity to Vancouver to transform Osoyoos. Jake MacDonald, writing in ROB Magazine in May, noted that the band had $26-million in revenue a year ago and posted a net profit of $2.5-million.

The band has used available federal and provincial programs, astute hirings from outside and partnerships to transform its 32,000 acres into a thriving modern community.

Mr. Louie is short on sentimentalism, often politically incorrect – he cheers for the Washington Redskins and Chicago Blackhawks – and has captured the attention of so many other First Nations that he could easily spend half the year on the road giving speeches and business workshops.

“I keep telling government they should concentrate on economic development and then we wouldn’t be in this mess. The original treaty relationship was a business relationship. It wasn’t a dependency relationship. … Even at the national level I never hear the national chiefs talk about that. They always talk about poverty. What is all this talk about poverty? You’ll never get rid of poverty without jobs. Talk about jobs. Quit talking about poverty.”

He says the chief and council should be the first “scorecard” for any band not doing well. But he says responsibility lies beyond the band, including the tribal councils, the regional vice-chiefs and the national leadership – all of whom have highly paid expertise at their disposal.

“Some of those guys get paid pretty damned good,” he says. “That is supposed to be your checks and balances, your system. So if a band is really messed up, I go up the line and say, ‘You guys mustn’t be doing a very good job if one of your family members is really suffering.’”

Mr. Louie always prefers to talk about his own small world over the larger one of Canadian First Nations issues. Some topics he avoids completely: “Pipelines aren’t an issue here,” he says.

The recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Tsilhqot’in title claim regarding logging rights in B.C. is of interest because there is both mining and forestry in the Okanagan. “I hope it’s not another of those, ‘Oh yeah, the natives win but it’s really just smoke and mirrors,’” he says. “But at least it’s a win, and that’s better than a loss.”

He also stands strongly behind the need for a better education system for First Nations, but with a caveat: “Once you get beyond the fluff about what education is supposed to do for you – make you a better person, more rounded, all that stuff – it’s really about making yourself employable. The more education you get, the better job you’re going to get.”

No matter the issue, the answer always comes back to the same mantra: jobs, jobs, jobs. While once more conceding that the desert climate of Osoyoos puts his band in a fortuitous position – compared with, say, the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation of Northern Ontario – he says location is “only half the problem.”

“The other half of the problem is the leadership focus,” the chief believes. Most bands say, “‘We need more money.’ And some people say, ‘Well, give them more money.’ Why give them money? Teach them how to work, how to have a work ethic, and how to have them start focusing on the economy. Because if you feed them this week, who’s going to feed them next week? You’re going to have to keep feeding them.”

When Mr. Louie speaks of his dreams for Osoyoos, he is always months, sometimes years down the line.

A $200-million provincial prison will be going up near the band’s headquarters at Oliver. Mr. Louie’s experience while serving on a federal panel reviewing the operations of Correctional Services convinced him things could be done differently, so the band bid on and won the project, though it will not run it. Still, the prison will mean more jobs – and, he hopes, lead toward new approaches.

Then there is the hobby race track, a new idea that is itself racing along as the Osoyoos band is convinced it can attract a rich clientele that prefers Lamborghinis to Land Rovers and might like to live out their Formula One fantasies.

The day done, Mr. Louie straps his Sitting Bull motorcycle helmet tight, fires up the Harley and heads down the resort road toward the band office. There he will collect his truck, parked beneath the band sign that contains the same inspirational quote that runs along his truck’s bumper.

“Native people have always worked for a living.”

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