Business, not welfare, only way forward for First Nations: Osoyoos chief

'If the biggest budget in your community is welfare, there's something wrong," Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie told a First Nations conference in Whitehorse this week.

‘If the biggest budget in your community is welfare, there’s something wrong,” Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie told a First Nations conference in Whitehorse this week.

The B.C. Osoyoos Indian Band, with its resorts, wineries, golf courses and other businesses, is arguably the most financially successful First Nation in Canada. That makes Louie sort of a First Nation Donald Trump.

“In today’s world, you cannot be a strong First Nation if you’re not financially strong,” said the outspoken chief.

“If you’re just spending, spending and spending, you’re setting up your future generations for bankruptcy. We have to bring a business sense to our First Nation governments. Successful First Nations are those making their own money, developing their own businesses and not just focusing on social issues.

“As First Nations people, we should realize, over the last 100 years, depending on somebody else to fund our programs and services will never work,” he said.

“At the core of a healthy person’s lifestyle is a job. If our people had jobs, they wouldn’t be filling those prisons. If our people had jobs, diabetes would go down. The idleness of unemployment is the biggest problem amongst First Nations people.”

Louie said he is fed up with wellness people, healers and drug and alcohol councillors.

“They need employment counselling in those treatment centres,” he said. “You should never send your people off to a treatment centre if all you have for them to come back home to is welfare. As First Nation leadership, we have to make the economy the number one issue.”

Financial development has always been a part of the discussion at the annual Yukon First Nation governance conference. It brings together bureaucrats from First Nations, territorial and federal governments.

The issue is raised whenever talk turns to the ever-present issue of mineral exploration and development companies moving into First Nation traditional territories.

It was a major issue at last year’s conference after Ottawa told the Yukon’s self-governing First Nations that their financial transfers would take into account the development of their own revenue.

After listening to Louie’s speech, it also was the main topic of discussion after the first day of this year’s conference.

“The buzz from folk after Chief Louie spoke, it was clear that what he had to say really resonated with people here,” said John Burdek, assistant deputy minister of government liaison and capacity development with the Yukon’s Executive Council Office, at a media briefing Thursday afternoon.

“A lot of the challenges that they’ve overcome and are encountering are very similar to things happening up here as well. His presentation is really timely in terms of where self-governing First Nations are taking the next step.”

But apart from listing well-known success stories, like the Vuntut Gwitchin’s Air North, Burdek was at a loss to point to any concrete ideas, decisions or partnerships coming out of the conference.

Kerry Newkirk, the Yukon’s new regional director of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, said only that building the capacity and infrastructure that allows own-source revenue to flourish is what this conference is all about.

The only Yukon First Nation representative who stayed to speak to the media after the first day was the executive director of the Council of Yukon First Nations, Michelle Kolla.

She simply repeated Louie’s sentiment that First Nations should partner and work together to share capacity.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at