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Okanagan band wins bid for $200-million prison

The small Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C.'s Okanagan has already earned the distinction of owning the most businesses per capita of any first nation in Canada. On Monday, Chief Clarence Louie's bid for the province's next maximum-security prison beat three others, adding a $200-million prize to his community's development.

The 360-cell corrections facility, which promises 1,000-person-years of construction employment and the equivalent of 240 full-time permanent jobs, will be built at the band's new industrial park, seven kilometres north of the town of Oliver.

Canadians have been confronted in recent months by images of the impoverished living conditions on the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario – which received humanitarian aid in December. But in the real-estate rich Okanagan, Mr. Louie's Osoyoos band has become a major economic force, creating jobs and revenue – both on reserve and for the larger community.

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Since Mr. Louie formed the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp. in the late 1980s, the 500-member band has opened a golf course, a cultural centre, a gas station and store, a construction company, a cement plant, a vineyard and a luxury resort and spa. Mr. Louie is the CEO of the development corporation.

The band continues to branch out, with a $9-million investment in the creation of an industrial park. The new prison promised Monday by Premier Christy Clark will be the park's anchor tenant.

"They are an absolutely sterling partner for this project," Ms. Clark said Monday. It is the first partnership of its kind between the province and a first nations community, and the fact that the Osoyoos could offer a fully serviced site was a deciding factor over the other three Okanagan communities that had sought to play host to the new prison.

Not every community embraced the project – the city of Penticton had to withdraw its bid in response to a public backlash. Mr. Louie said his own people are not uniformly enthusiastic, but a vote to rezone the Senkulmen Enterprise Park to allow for a corrections facility won strong support.

"Here in the Okanagan, on the reserve or off the reserve, jobs are the number one issue," he said in an interview. In addition to the immediate construction jobs, he says young people in his community need to start thinking about a career in corrections – not only as guards but in the fields of medicine and social work.

Mr. Louie said he was also driven to land this project by a social imperative to take on the imbalance inside Canadian prisons. After a tour of prisons in Western Canada, he saw firsthand the over-representation of first nations people inside prisons, and a need to improve rehabilitation services.

One in 20 British Columbians is aboriginal – but in B.C. prisons, the ratio is one in four.

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"We would hope that this project, being the first of its kind on an Indian reserve, that we can work out and change the statistics of aboriginal incarceration in this country," he said, "and that we can show to the rest of Canada how to work for the rehabilitation of not just the first nation inmates, but also all of the inmates that wind up in corrections."

The facility will be built as a private-public partnership but the prison will be managed by B.C. Corrections. The band and the province will now spend the next six months working out the details. It is tentatively set to open in 2016.

Darryl Walker, president of the union that represents corrections workers, said the prison will go a long way to relieving dangerous overcrowding. But he worries that the province has taken far too long to get shovels in the ground. B.C. prisons are running at roughly 160 per cent capacity. Since 2008, about 175 inmates at any given time are being housed in large tents as an interim measure.

"Call them what you want, they are not secure facilities," Mr. Walker said. "It's not good enough."

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