Chief Clarence Louie has a simple mantra.
“Creating jobs and making money,” said Louie, for the fifth time, speaking in front of a packed house at the Economic Foundations Conference on Tuesday at the Yukon Inn.
Louie doesn’t like being called chief.
“I don’t need a word in front of my name; I’m a businessman,” he said.
He travels like a businessman, too.
Louie tried to book an earlier flight out of Whitehorse, he told his Yukon audience.
He wanted to get back to the southern Okanagan Valley where his First Nation, the Osoyoos Indian Band, is located.
He’s off to Australia the next day for another keynote speech, he said, and he’d like to get some work done before the flight.
Louie has become a hot commodity on the aboriginal speaking circuit. He spends one week out of every month on the road, bringing his capitalist gospel to indigenous people around the globe.
“Don’t vote for the chief who gives the same old Indian speech,” he said. “Vote for the chief who’s going to get you a job.”
He has a message for chiefs who don’t focus on developing businesses for their First Nations.
If youths are leaving their traditional homeland, Louie doesn’t blame them.
“All they have to look forward to are those government-controlled grant jobs,” he said.
The Osoyoos Indian Band keeps 750 people employed in half a dozen businesses.
The band’s development corporation runs a four-and-a-half-star hotel, a golf course, a winery, a construction company and a gas station.
First Nations people from Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Yukon go to work in Osoyoos.
Louie loves hosting First Nation guests at his high-end business empire.
“That’s our responsibility because we’re so far ahead of other First Nations,” he said.
His brusque business promotion isn’t conventional First Nation thinking.
“Don’t talk to me about philosophy,” he said to 200 people at the Yukon Inn. “Don’t talk to me about running with the salmon or flying with the eagle.”
“I want to hear about creating jobs and making money.”
He’s studied First Nation history, he said.
And he’s notice some uncomfortable truths about the status quo.
“A lot of these First Nation issues on land claims and treaties – that’s a 100-year-old fight,” he said. “And for a lot of them, it’s going to be another 100 years.”
These heavily symbolic battles are out of touch with the reality of First Nation poverty and despair.
The problem isn’t just treaty-obsession, but also too much focus on social spending.
“Any healthy person wants to work,” he said. “And welfare being the biggest budget in First Nations, that’s what the formula has caused: a social mentality and culture of dependency.”
The “formula” has been the standard relationship between Ottawa and First Nations for decades.
A First Nation will spend 96 per cent of its funds on health, education and cultural preservation, but only four per cent on economic development, said Louie.
The formula’s been reworked and modified over and over again, but it’s only kept First Nations economically destitute.
“It’s still the same stupid formula,” he said. “Economic development is not the priority.”
It isn’t normal for any group of people to depend on others for capital instead of making their own.
“It doesn’t work for white society,” he said. “A country that derives the majority of its jobs and its income from foreign aid – those are Third World countries.”
Societies need to be self-sufficient to last, he said, and Louie has no time for staid notions that First Nations need to oppose business because it’s a white man’s thing.
“It’s because of colonization that we’re not competitive,” he said.
And spending money on social programs only strengthens this contemporary colonization.
“More and more First Nations are starting to realize this formula doesn’t work,” he said. “Less than 10 years ago, there were no economic development conferences for First Nations.”
“Our people have been inundated with social programs and social conferences.”
Louie sounds purposefully forceful about pushing business ownership.
The focus on social spending has haunted First Nations for decades, and it won’t be an easy mentality to break.
For the old guard, Louie can sound like a threat.
He doesn’t litter his speeches with references about traditional ways of life.
“You’re going to lose your culture quicker in poverty,” he said.
The Osoyoos Indian Band recently bought 32 hectares of Okanagan land to protect animal life and to keep it from being developed by non-First Nations.
The band has built a first-class school, a health clinic and a high-end sports complex with its profits, said Louie.
“It’s like the national chief said in his campaign,” he said, referring to Shawn Atleo, the Assembly of First nation’s new chief.
“You’ve got to have economic power before you have political power.”
Contact James Munson at firstname.lastname@example.org.