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Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band stands in the rows of wine grapes at the Spirit Ridge Vineyard resort and spa in Osoyoos B.C. in September, 2007. (Jeff Bassett for The Globe and Mail/Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail)
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band stands in the rows of wine grapes at the Spirit Ridge Vineyard resort and spa in Osoyoos B.C. in September, 2007. (Jeff Bassett for The Globe and Mail/Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail)

Clarence Louie lifted his community out of poverty Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

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Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Clarence Louie, Chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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On a November evening in Vancouver, the Fish House in Stanley Park is holding a launch party for a new offering from Nk’Mip Cellars, North America’s first aboriginal-owned winery. The guest of honour is Chief Clarence Louie, chief executive officer of B.C.’s Osoyoos Indian Band, which operates Nk’Mip in a joint venture with Mississauga-based Vincor Canada.

Over a glass of riesling, Chief Louie explains that the only way for First Nations communities to gain economic independence is to go into business. “The economy should always be the number one issue,” he says, gazing into the distance. “It’s the number one issue for white people – it should be the number one issue for native people.”

Chief Louie, first elected to his post in 1984 at age 24, has dedicated himself to breaking the cycle of government dependence that dictates life on so many of Canada’s aboriginal reserves. He has succeeded brilliantly. With just 460 members, the Osoyoos Indian Band owns more businesses per capita than any other First Nation in the country. It employs 700 people – most of them non-native – and contributes $40-million a year to the local economy.

Now 50, the coolly confident Chief Louie may not be a celebrity on Bay Street, but he enjoys a measure of fame. Recently, he exchanged business cards with Hollywood director James Cameron aboard Vancouver billionaire Jim Pattison’s yacht. He has received many honours, among them the Order of British Columbia in 2006 and the 2004 Business and Commerce award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

It’s a dramatic change from Chief Louie’s impoverished childhood on the Osoyoos reserve, where he was raised by a hard-working single mother. Because the reserve provided few jobs during the 1960s and ’70s, he recalls, many parents toiled in the orchards of nearby Washington State. “A lot of kids in the families a lot of the time grew up by themselves.”

When he was 19, Chief Louie got on a plane to Regina and enrolled in what is now First Nations University of Canada. He then moved to Alberta to spend two years in the native American studies program at the University of Lethbridge. Among other subjects, he studied the reserve system that has existed on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border since the 1870s.

“Most people who get elected can’t explain the Indian Act, they don’t know treaties or land claims,” says Chief Louie, a compulsive reader who keeps a well-stocked library. “I was writing term papers on those things before I got elected.”

Chief Louie points out that Canada’s First Nations were once self-sufficient. As he sees it, colonial interventions by Indian agents and the church – through its residential-school system – left them crippled and dependent on government handouts. “When white people first moved into our territories and regions, there was a mutual economic relationship,” Chief Louie says.

In 1984, the Osoyoos Indian Band’s on-reserve employment opportunities consisted of vineyard leases and a campground. Chief Louie set out to improve living standards in his community, whose 32,000-acre South Okanagan reserve stands in B.C. wine country amid Canada’s only desert.

Four years later, he formed the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp. Its nine businesses now include a golf course, a cultural centre, a gas station and store, a construction company, a cement plant and Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa – a luxury development with Calgary-based Bellstar Hotels & Resorts.

Chief Louie and his council have also settled two land claims, acquired hundreds of acres of new land and built a school, a health-care centre and other services. Equally important, the band has the means to preserve its traditional culture through initiatives such as language and youth programs. “Everything costs money – even practising your culture costs money,” Chief Louie notes.

A fan of the gym but no lover of holidays, the chief is serving a second three-year term as chair of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board. He often speaks at reserves across the country, where he tells the Osoyoos story and stresses the importance of focusing on the economy.

Looking at the Canadian business community, Chief Louie says he’s encouraged that companies are starting to recognize aboriginal rights and title after a lengthy struggle by First Nations leaders. “There’s still a long way to go, but there’s been a big improvement within corporate Canada and the federal and provincial governments,” he says. “Aboriginal issues are being forced to the corporate boardrooms and the cabinet tables.”

Clarence Louie on the rewards of economic independence

When a First Nations community is poor, nobody really pays attention to them except for when they want to complain about them being welfare recipients or a burden on the tax system….But wherever you go where First Nations people are bringing millions of dollars into the economy of their region and they’re creating hundreds of jobs, there’s a better relationship. There’s a business relationship. I want to see business relationships between the native and non-native communities, not a dependency relationship or a pity relationship.

On the value of hard work

I’m dealing with some of our youths right now that are not doing well in high school. Some of them just went off to college and they failed every course. I did the same thing. When I got in my senior years, I barely graduated. I didn’t do well in college or university my first few tries. But I was always a hard worker….We want all of our people to graduate – that’s what everybody says, but that’s not the reality of what’s going to happen with a lot of native kids. And to me, as long as they have a work ethic, that’s what I want to see developed in our people….As long as you have a work ethic, you’ll always have a productive life and you’ll always have a chance to bounce back.

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