Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Tale of Two Native Bands

I first had the opportunity to meet Chief Clarence Louie over a dozen years ago when I was the Ministerial Assistant to former Okanagan Boundary MLA and Cabinet Minister Bill Barlee.

Since that time Chief Louie has become a national icon for economic progress and development on reserve lands. The facilities his community has built are not only the envy of other native communities but non-native ones as well.

I spent the labour day weekend visiting with friends and family in Penticton. While I drove her around town, my 81-year-old mother took great delight in pointing out the bits of old shed that is supposed to be some form of public art in my old hometown.

While Penticton’s art choices have provoked ridicule and vandalism, the Osoyoos Band have gone for metal sculptures by U.S. artist Virgil "Smoker" Marchand that amaze and inspire. Thus both in terms of architecture and public art the Osoyoos Band is head and shoulders above the other non-native communities in the South Okanagan.

But an even more glaring contrast emerges when one compares the progress of the Osoyoos Indian Band with that of the Penticton Indian Band. When Clarence Louie was first elected in 1984, at age 24, the Osoyoos Band was bankrupt with only marginal land and extremely high unemployment.

Two decades later, the Osoyoos Indian Band owns nine businesses, and is the largest employer in the South Okanagan. These businesses employ both native and non-natives and they also inject $40 million per year into the local economy.

Contrast that with the Penticton Indian Band where poverty unemployment and drug related crime are still rampant. As a consultant who has worked for quite a number of First Nations here in British Columbia, I have often said that having federal bureaucrats dictating every aspect of people’s lives worked about as well for natives in Canada as it did for peasants living in the Soviet Union.

But for natives to break free of the capriciousness and inefficiency of Ottawa bureaucrats they need not only greater political independence but greater economic independence as well.

Although he may have seen the light in more recent years, it certainly was not that long ago when Chief Stewart Philip of the Penticton Indian Band espoused a doctrine, which was long on talk of political autonomy but came up very short on the economic side. But self-government that is still entirely reliant on funding from Ottawa means that the bureaucrats in Ottawa are still calling the shots by controlling the purse strings.

The economic progress, or lack thereof that is happening on native reserves is of critical importance to the future of Canada. Canada’s Aboriginal population is growing seven times as fast as the non-native population. Thus the success or failure of native communities will have a steadily increasing economic and social impact on adjoining non-native communities.

Just as the economic success of the Osoyoos Indian Band has had a tremendously positive economic and social impact on the communities of Oliver and Osoyoos, the continued economic malaise of the Penticton Indian Band is having a very negative impact on the City of Penticton.

For the sake of my old home town and native and non-native residents alike, I certainly hope that the Penticton Band will soon be able to start emulating the success of the Osoyoos Indian Band by making economic development a number one priority.

Mike Geoghegan is a government relations and media relations consultant who lives in Victoria BC. He can be reached via his website at