Recent headlines have been bemoaning the fact that the BC Treaty Process has spent over a billion dollars with little if any in the way of tangible progress. The sad fact is that the majority of treaties here in Canada have often done little to help and often much to hinder than help the plight of many natives living here in Canada.
Here in the Okanagan Valley there are two first nations that have made remarkable progress over the past two decades. The first is the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) which has gone from poverty to prosperity under the inspired leadership of Chief Clarence Louie. The second is the Westbank First Nation (WFN) which has followed a notably different entrepreneurial path to prosperity under a several different Chiefs most notably its current Chief Robert Louie.
The OIB's land base consists of over 32,000 acres of land ranging from rich agricultural land to the only true desert lands in Canada. The Band manages businesses with annual budgets in excess of $l7 million dollars and administers its own health, social, educational and municipal services despite having a band membership of only 450 people.
OIB band members enjoy full employment, affordable housing and a range of services that are the envy of many living in the non-native community. Most of the funding for these services comes not from the federal government but from revenue generated by OIB’s many thriving business operations.
For its success Chief Clarence Louie has been widely and deservedly praised, but the true acid test of his legacy will come once he eventually retires from office. Will these state enterprises continue to prosper under less gifted leadership? Only time will tell.
The Westbank First Nation instead of following a model of band owned businesses has instead been able to encourage private investment from both the native and non-native community. The result has not only been low unemployment but a band membership that includes a significant number of multi-millionaires.
Thus rather than state enterprise the WFN has seen its success come more through individual and corporate enterprise. Another key to Westbank’s success was their ability to achieve self government without being shackled to the current dysfunctional BC Treaty making process. WFN’s self government agreement has allowed them to provide more efficient governance than the non native municipalities that surround them. This has meant that the market rate for leasable commercial land is now higher on reserve than off.
It is also worth noting that many native residential home owners saw the market value of their homes increase tenfold once Westbank’s self government agreement was ratified. The irony was that many of these same home owners had voted against the agreement as the ratification vote on it passed by the narrowest of margins.
Thus by taking two different paths to prosperity the Osoyoos Indian Band and Westbank First Nation have proven that remarkable progress for band members can be made outside of the BC Treaty process. One strong lesson that comes from Westbank’s success is that self-governance should be separated entirely from treaty making in order to give other First Nation’s the decision making tools they need in order to prosper.
The lesson that comes from the Osoyoos Indian Band’s success is that leadership matters. In both instances able and entrepreneurial governance is the key. That is why both Osoyoos and Westbank have prospered while the Penticton Indian Band, which is located between them, has not.
Michael Geoghegan is a government relations consultant based in Victoria, B.C. He can be contacted via his website at www.mgcltd.ca