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- Created: Tuesday, 15 October 2013 14:12
- Published: Tuesday, 15 October 2013 14:12
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Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie says the antidote to racism is respect due to economic power
By Sam Cooper, The Province
"I'm a born-again savage," says Osoyoos Indian band Chief Clarence Louie. "I'm probably the wrong person you want to speak to about racism."
Louie - 52-year-old CEO of a booming development corporation on Canada's most successful aboriginal reserve - is as provocative on the subject of race as his people are economically mighty.
Since rising to leadership in the Southern Okanagan 30 years ago, he's become known for leading his tribe from poverty to the promised land, raining down money and jobs in the midst of Canada's only true desert.
The band of 500 runs nine growing businesses, including North America's first aboriginal winery, Nk'Mip Cellars (recently rated best in B.C.), a popular resort and spa, golf course and concrete producer. There are mining interests, and the band is getting into the infrastructure business, with plans to build a B.C. Corrections facility on a reserve industrial park. Band members are fully employed, and non-natives from surrounding communities are increasingly coming to work for the Osoyoos. The way Louie sees it, it's as if a developing nation within a developed nation is finally powering ahead.
Canadian First Nations leaders come from far and wide to learn the band's business model. And Louie is increasingly influential as a motivational speaker, preaching the benefits of self-reliance. His message, essentially, is about disregarding victimhood.
Louie doesn't discount persistent inequality and the impact of racism toward aboriginals in Canada. He points to "unbelievable injustices" in the colonial system that created a "dependency relationship" in First Nations, but ultimately failed to turn Indian children "into brown-skinned white people" within residential schools.
And it was only about 100 years ago, he notes, during the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, that B.C. settlers successfully lobbied the provincial government to chisel off additional lands from federal Indian reserves.
"The white people wanted more of the best land, they said, 'Those Indians aren't doing anything with the land, so let's push them up against the rocks,'" he says of the Osoyoos' experience in the Southern Okanagan.
He argues that the antidote to oppression and racism is respect due to economic power. His band has succeeded by asserting a proud identity, he says.
Ranging around his office during an interview, he picks up and reads from books with quotes from American black separatist leaders Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Also, he repeatedly refers to the resistance of legendary American Indian chief, Sitting Bull.
Louie doesn't disagree that to an extent his own leadership and commentary could be categorized as militant and separatist.
But referring to racism in B.C., he adds: "Even some native people have crossed over to be extreme racists, which to me is wrong."
Speaking personally, Louie recalls recognizing his racial difference as a youth. Osoyoos band members were outnumbered by hundreds of "the white kids" at South Okanagan Secondary School in Oliver. But that was a positive and formative experience, Louie says.
"The white kids never bullied the Indians, because they knew we were damn good fighters," he says. "They bullied the East Indians and Chinese, but not the Reds."
Now, 40 years later, Louie seems to view business success in the same way.
"I really don't take the approach, 'Oh, we should get rid of racism,' because it will always be there in some idiots," he says. "But what I find here in the South Okanagan is we have a business relationship with non-native people, and there is way less racism, and there is more respect."
Like other First Nations leaders, Louie says Canada's Indian Act needs rewriting. But he doesn't have the patience to wait, negotiate and litigate.
"It's a dinosaur system, and there is still too much non-native control of Indian reserves," he says. "We're saying, 'We're taking control of our affairs, we're going to create jobs and make money.'" Louie stresses that business success doesn't mean assimilating with Canada's mainstream. He believes First Nations must have distinct rights and self-government.
"To hell with jumping into the Canadian melting pot. I tell my people, 'Be a born-again savage,'" Louie says, repeating the politically incorrect phrase.
What does it mean? "It doesn't mean you are going to live in a teepee or just hunt and fish. But it means we have to gain power and authority to get our lands back."