When the federal budget came down in Ottawa last week, Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie wasn’t there in person, writes Ecotrust Canada President Ian Gill. He had been invited by the federal Conservatives to sit in the House of Commons, presumably to give his blessing to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s plans to provide more funding to Aboriginal communities for their economic development needs.
Instead, Chief Louie was in Osoyoos, doing what he does best – working on economic development projects for his community, and proselytizing to a group of First Nations people who gathered to hear the Oracle from Osoyoos tell his tale. He may not be Warren Buffett, but what Clarence Louie has done for his tiny community in the Okanagan Valley is truly of Berkshire Hathaway proportions by comparison to most of what has happened in “Indian Country.”
While he wasn’t physically in Ottawa to see the federal budget, Clarence Louie was there in spirit. Mr. Flaherty announced $70-million in new funding for Aboriginal economic development. In doing so, he recounted a conversation he had with Chief Louie, who pointed to the large number of Aboriginal Canadians out of work.
"He suggested the government’s focus needs to shift from social services to economic development and skills training," Mr. Flaherty said. "Mr. Speaker, our government could not agree more."
Of course, the fact that his government could not bring itself to give more to Aboriginal Canada has been met with disappointment and derision in some First Nations circles. But Clarence Louie didn’t seem to care.
Instead, he is moving ahead with plans to build a new industrial park on band lands. Add that to the cultural centre, the resort hotel and spa, the trailer park, and Nk'Mip Cellars – North America's first Aboriginal-owned and operated winery – and you begin to get a picture of how a tiny band (450 members) now has businesses with annual revenues of over $17-million and growing.
The very fact that the Osoyoos Indian Band offers training workshops in Aboriginal economic development is impressive. I was honored to be invited to participate in the workshop last week and offer a conservation economy perspective to proceedings.
There is much interest among Aboriginal leaders in pursuing economic development that doesn't mimic the industrial excesses of the past. There is a real hunger to break away from government and forge partnerships with experienced developers – the secret to Clarence Louie's success.
Yes, Clarence Louie has figured out how to build an economy in “Indian Country,” and for that alone he is now the darling of the National Post and the Harper Conservatives. But a conservation economy? Not on the evidence that I saw. Sure there were no-flush urinals in the cultural centre, but little else to suggest that the Osoyoos leadership has embraced environmental technologies that are fast becoming the norm elsewhere.
One person at the workshop said that Aboriginal communities have a “natural competitive advantage” because of their time-honored stewardship ethic. True enough. And it is in a conservation economy that the returns will be highest.