'First entrepreneurs': Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie gives rousing economic speech in Fort St. John

First Nations people were the first entrepreneurs in Canada and need to get back to being competitive, renowned Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie told an audience in Fort St. John on Wednesday.

Louie was in town as a guest of the Chamber of Commerce to talk about his more than three decades of experience as chief and the economic development he has led on the Osoyoos reserve.

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"I love what I do, I love creating jobs," Louie said. "I want to see my people working, I dont believe in welfare; welfare's not indian."

Throughout his hour-long keynote at the Lido Theatre, Louie was gregarious and well-spoken, drawing much laughter and applause as he shared the insights and wisdom he's gained over the years as chief, and the work he's done to create jobs on his reserve.

Today, the Osoyoos territory is home to thousands of acres of vineyards and two golf courses, multiples resorts, and an exclusive members-only Grand Prix inspired racecar track. Unemployment on the reserve is less than 3%, and the band generates nearly $30 million a year through its various businesses.

First Nations were a competitive people long before English and French settlers arrived, Louie said, racing horses and canoes, and playing bone games and hand games with one another. "We got to get back to that competitiveness," he said.

A few years ago, human remains were found in a popular provincial park nearby the reserve. The remains dated back 1,400 years and the grave was filled with artefacts that weren't from the region, Louie said.

"Some of the stuff found in that grave site didn't come from the Okanagan. It didn't come from our territory. It came from the southern states," Louie said.

"Archaeological evidence has proven that the first entrepreneurs of this land, the first business people, were the first nations. We had trade routes stretching far south, far east, west, north. We had historical trade routes that are now called highways, historical trade routes now called rivers."

There have been more than 1,000 jobs created on the reserve through partnerships to build up its economy, largely focused on tourism, and at last count there are 35 different First Nations groups from across Western Canada nd the territories represented on the reserve, Louie said.

"Every time I see a native on my rez working, I go and ask them, how did you wind up here, why did you leave your territory?" Louie said.

"It's always the same reason: 'I didn't want to raise my family on welfare. Where I come from there are no jobs. Where I come from there are only band office jobs. I read about Osoyoos in the newspaper, I saw it on TV. I wanted to get away from that dependency cycle and I wanted to come somewhere that's independent, where people are expected to work'."

Money isn't a bad word, Louie said, and it has to come from somewhere — economic development.

"Depending on Indian Affairs is a failed formula. No government has ever properly provided funding for any of our programs and services on the reserve. I don't care if they're Conservative, Liberal, NDP — they never have and they never will," Louie said.

"I don't care who the national chief is, and how much he hollers and screams. There's never enough funding for our programs on the reserve. That's why I tell my people we got to start making our own money. Money is not a bad word. We got to make start making our own momey, creating our own jobs that don't depend on government funding."

Economic development allows the band to take care of its needs, and lets chief and council put their money where there mouth is, Louie said.

"Caring costs money, even spirituality," he said. 

"Every ceremony we do back home costs money, it's not for free. Every time we have a salmon ceremony, it costs money. Our winter dances, they cost money. The sweat houses we have, that costs thousands of dollars."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

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