Chief Robert Louie has dedicated his life to his community, and fought for decades to bring the Westbank First Nation to where it is today.
Westbank, beside Kelowna, British Columbia, is the most successfully developed First Nation in Canada, with more than 400 businesses serving the community’s nearly 10,000 people.
Westbank owns strip malls, tourist attractions and is a partner in a successful golf course. The community has its own forestry management program to harvest lumber from its lands, and it is currently working towards building a $180-million integrated health-care facility that will be capable of providing everything from heart operations to hip surgeries.
So how did they do it? Through careful investment and the power of the free market. But Louie said there are two other ingredients whose absence would spoil the cake: self-government and a strong, capable community.
He said without his community, he would never have achieved any of his goals.
“A leader is only as good as the people he leads. If the membership sees doubt in the leadership, then you have a weak link that is not going to bode you well. We try to encourage everyone to work together. The closer you work together, the stronger you become, like the strands of a steel cable,” he said.
“I know from first-hand experience that a nation must be recognized with governance powers. One way or another, it has to be achieved, whether it’s an Umbrella Agreement like the Yukon’s, or a separate process, they need to be the decision-makers on their lands,” Louie said.
Louie was in Whitehorse earlier this week as a guest speaker at Yukon College. He was teaching a class of leadership students about his 15-year battle to bring self-government to his community and help it prosper.
Along the way, Louie also earned himself a host of accolades, including the Order of Canada and appointment to a slew of boards and advisory committees. He’s had the ear of premiers and prime ministers, and is considered an expert in First Nations economic development.
He was also directly involved in the failed Kelowna Accord negotiations, which would have seen Canada make significant contributions to First Nations housing and economic development, but was shelved when the current federal government came to power.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that it didn’t get passed. I think that if it were followed, First Nations today would be miles ahead of where they are right now,” he said.
But even so, Louie feels that with the pressure Idle No More put on the Harper government to sit down and listen to First Nations, there is enough momentum to push for what is needed, namely: investment.
“There are all kinds of solutions that could be handed to (Harper). He and his government will have to follow through, and if they do, I think the economy across Canada will be much better.
“Studies show there is a 10-fold return on government investment in First Nation initiatives. That translates to hundreds of millions of dollars of economic benefits across the country, but it takes support at the federal level to start with,” Louie said.
Essentially, he argues that if the government gives First Nations the resources and freedom to build their own economies, they will, and Canada as a whole will reap the benefits.
He points to Westbank’s planned health-care centre as proof. Once it’s built, Louie envisions a privatized facility that clients will pay for, but that could serve Canadians not just across B.C. but across the country, similar to the John Hopkins Hospital in the U.S.
“They’ll pay for that service. It’s a privatized clinic, and I think it will set the path for Canada in the future. If governments are going to survive, if you as a taxpayer are going to ensure that you have the service you need, you’re going to need alternatives to the public system. Otherwise health-care costs are going to go through the roof.
“The growth and cost of health care is escalating. We know that there are places across the country where Canadians take their money and go for operations. Why not keep the money in Canada? That’s our philosophy. It’s a huge opportunity and that’s what we intend to do,” he said.
But for Louie, everything hangs on that one special ingredient: self-government and the power of a First Nation to determine its own future.
“Self-government is one of the most important steps to helping struggling communities overcome their social ills, but with it must come capacity development, things like the courses up here at the college, teaching leadership and helping people prepare for the future. It’s one thing to know what to do, but you must know how to do it, and you must have support to do it, and that support folds into things like self-government and self-determination,” he said.
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