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.
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.”