Clarence Louie: Ruffling Feathers

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band doesn’t hold back when he's ruffling the feathers his First Nations peers: Stop playing the victim, give up the blame game and get on board with business.

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band doesn’t hold back when he’s ruffling the feathers his First Nations peers: Stop playing the victim, give up the blame game and get on board with business.

In a small boardroom on the second floor of the Metropolitan Hotel on Howe Street, Clarence Louie, the maverick chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band, is doing what he is often asked to do these days. That is, talk to First Nations bands about how to evolve from a ulture of dependence into a bastion of independence and entrepreneurship. “I won’t go to a meeting these days unless it has to do with creating jobs and making money,” Louie announces bluntly to a small gathering of band councillors and administrators from the Saulteau First Nation near Moberly Lake in northern B.C. “I spend my time on economic development and I don’t care what you say; everything costs money. Even our traditional ceremonies cost money.” It’s the first and last time you’ll hear this renowned (No. 40 on Maclean’s 2003 Watch List of Canadians) First Nations business leader utter the word “tradition” during his PowerPoint presentation, but you’ll quickly lose count of the number of references to “economic development.” In his neat blazer, pressed black trousers and wire-rimmed glasses, he could be mistaken for a Fraser Institute pundit. Before an audience, Louie is a formidable and brazen speaker who isn’t afraid to push buttons. In private, he is serious, intense and straightforward, with a penetrating gaze and an extremely quick mind. He’s been accused by his own kind of sacrificing traditional First Nations culture and values at the altar of capitalism, yet under his leadership his band built the beautiful Nk’Mip Desert and First Nations Heritage Centre which does just that – promotes aboriginal culture. Nobody – First Nations or otherwise – is immune to his critical gaze. In one breath he’ll dismiss the ¬federal department of Indian affairs as an inept bureaucracy that has perpetuated a First Nations ¬welfare state. In the next, he’ll chide fellow ¬aboriginals who claim to be following the “red road” (adhering to traditional values and spirituality) while collecting a social assistance cheque. Truth is, the 46-year-old’s pro-business views are grounded in a belief that the only way forward for First Nations is to break the cycle of poverty and dependence on government handouts – that have plagued his people since the Indian Act became law in 1876 – through self-¬sufficiency and economic development. His track record as chief of the 420-strong Osoyoos Indian Band, now in his 22nd year, has garnered attention around Canada and abroad. The accolades are nice, and Louie’s got the ¬financial cred to back it. The Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp. currently owns nine businesses, with annual revenues topping $13 million, including the award-winning Nk’Mip Cellars, the first First Nations-owned winery in the world. Every Christmas, 12 per cent of profits are distributed to band members. In 2005, more than 1,000 First Nations and non-First Nations were employed by OIB businesses and joint ventures. That same year, OIB Holdings generated nearly $2 million in lease payments from non-First Nations companies such as Calgary-based Bellstar Hotels & Resorts, which is putting the finishing touches on a four-star property – Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa – on the shores of Lake Osoyoos. Not too shabby for a band that has fewer members than your average urban high school has students. “Anyone who has been in town for more than five minutes knows about him,” says CJ Rhodes, president of the Osoyoos Chamber of Commerce. Brett Sweezy is the Sandpoint, Idaho-based president of Winter Recreation, ULC, the parent company of Mount Baldy Ski Corp. When the outfit purchased the small ski resort east of Osoyoos in 2005, Sweezy and his partners approached the Osoyoos Indian Band on whose traditional lands they were planning to build an 8,000-bed resort. After tough negotiations, Sweezy and company signed a precedent-setting agreement that gives OIB a 2.5-per-cent interest in Winter Recreation ULC, a share of revenues from real-estate development, reduced lift tickets and job opportunities for band members at the resort, as well as assurances that archeological sites and traditional land use would be respected. In exchange, the American company acquires a comfortable level of certainty that the band will support its resort plans, wisely sidestepping the thorny aboriginal land title conflicts that have deep-sixed other ventures in the past. “I give the OIB a lot of credit because there is a lot of pressure from other First Nations not to sell out,” Sweezy says over the phone from Sandpoint about the agreement he hammered out with Louie. “In our meetings with Chief Louie, there wasn’t a lot of open banter. He’s not afraid to point fingers and put issues on the table. He’s a politician and he’s always aware of how things will play out with his council.” On several occasions Sweezy has had the unenviable task of following Louie on the speakers’ list at various conferences and meetings. “I’ll only speak before him now; otherwise nobody will listen,” Sweezy says with a chuckle, giving a nod to Louie’s prowess at the podium. In an article published by the online journal Indian Country Today, Ed Romanowski, CEO of Bellstar Hotels & Resorts, says outside investment on Osoyoos band property is attractive because Louie and the OIB have demonstrated that “their word is their deed.” The OIB’s economic profile has been “an inspiration for many bands,” but it’s not necessarily a model that can be applied across the board, says Stewart Phillip, chief of the Penticton Indian Band and current president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “Some bands simply don’t have the same economic opportunities.” Certainly, the OIB is blessed by its proximity to a relatively vibrant business environment in the south Okanagan, and it doesn’t fault other First Nations for focusing on the treaty process to gain a share of resource revenue from the province. However, he’s convinced the principles of self-sufficiency are sound. But the doorway to change hasn’t always swung open easily for Louie. It’s taken a lot of debate, disagreement and frank self-reflection among a people Louie says are too often fixated on looking to right past wrongs and sticking Band-Aids on nagging social issues such as alcoholism, drug abuse and family strife. “I like dealing in reality,” he says. “I’m not saying that everybody agrees with me. A lot of elders still hold up the British flag and talk about promises made a hundred years ago. Personally, I don’t have any faith in the Queen.”

In his neat blazer, pressed black trousers and wire-rimmed glasses, chief clarence louie could be mistaken for a fraser institute pundit. Nobody – first nations or otherwise – is immune to his critical gaze

Louie was born in Oliver in 1960 and at the age of 18, he enrolled in Native American studies at the University of Saskatchewan, eventually completing his ¬degree in Lethbridge. In 1984, at age 24, he was recruited to run for chief of the Osoyoos band. He won his first campaign and hasn’t looked back since. When he first took over the council reins he walked into a stereotypically dysfunctional band preoccupied with running Department of Indian Affairs (since renamed Indian and Northern Affairs) social programs and crippled by rampant nepotism, acrimonious band politics and social problems. The single band-owned business, a vineyard started in 1968, limped along year after year accumulating losses. Not surprisingly, he says, collectively his band was a symptom of a system the government instituted – one of welfare dependence and shoehorning bands onto marginal lands at the expense of job creation and economic development. But, he concedes, aboriginal leaders are also to blame, too eager to become the servants of federal programs instead of real advocates for change. “Any time we can kick DIA out of our business, we do it,” he says. Today Louie’s vision is still a work in progress, but the streamlined corporate environment at the OIB is a far cry from the dysfunctional place he walked into two decades ago. It’s no picnic working under Louie’s watch. Some of his HR concepts don’t exactly mesh with supposedly enlightened business models, where every day is a casual Friday. It’s not unusual to see small banners with slogans like, “If your life sucks, it means you suck,” or “A real warrior supports himself and others,” tacked to the walls of the band office. His council recently decided to install clocks at the band council and OIBDC offices to curtail truancy, and strict rules guard against the kind of nepotism that is common on Indian reserves where sisters supervise brothers and the chief hires his wife to do the books. Surprisingly, there’s not a single member of a First Nation on the OIBDC’s board of directors because, Louie says, business isn’t about race – it’s about expertise. “There’s a group of natives that feels entitled, and that needs to be changed to a culture of performance,” he says. “You don’t hand over the keys to a multi-million-dollar business to someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s a recipe for bankruptcy.” It’s time for Louie to wrap up his PowerPoint. He has a plane to catch back to the Okanagan. These days he doesn’t get too misty-eyed over First Nations spirituality and traditions. In his briefcase, along with his books on First Nations history and politics, he has a set of custom door handles for his kids’ Hummer that he picked up at a Vancouver car dealer. (As he’s fond of saying, there’s no culture in poverty.) “Our people have the worst social statistics in Canada and our leaders have allowed this to go on for 100 years. I’ve never bought that stuff about natives being non-competitive. Throwing the best potlatch required accumulating a certain amount of wealth,” he says as he snaps his briefcase closed. Clearly, Chief Louie didn’t get to where he is today by mincing words.