Recently, I spent a few days in Osoyoos, B.C. I was attending a conference on Aboriginal economic development, hosted by the Osoyoos Indian Band and the famous Chief Clarence Louie.
This was easily one of the best conferences I have attended.. ever... Believe me, I've attended many as both a reporter and as a policy analyst.
It was great mainly because I was blessed to hear Chief Louie speak. I have read his statements in the press and have seen him on video clips, but this is the first time up close.
The first thing that came through was his passionate concern and love for his people. It quickly became obvious to me that Chief Louie is not an ideologue or connected to any movement or anything like that. He is genuinely moved to place his community's improvement ahead of his own.
He is a very down-to-earth kind of guy. He also almost speaks in an accent as if he came off the street, if you know what I mean. He has little tolerance for BS and he gets straight to the point. He collects good sayings. During his speaking, he mentioned hearing different indigenous leaders and highlighted good, original things they have to say. He also humorously noted that he has collected dozens of speeches over the years and highlighted the commonalities between them. He said that he has dozens and dozens of speeches from chiefs that almost sound identifical. He says that many chiefs are great on promise and talk, but fail to deliver on many levels.
I was also honoured to hear National Chief Shawn Atleo, who I have a new found respect for.
I had heard him before, despite attending the recent AFN leadership vote (I missed the speeches).
Atleo impressed me with his dedication to put economic development on top of his agenda. Let's hope he lives up to it.
We also heard from Stephen Cornell, a professor from Arizona who is associated with the Harvard Project on Native American Economic Development. Cornell laid out several bands and tribes that were doing wonderful (will little resources in many cases). Cornell gave concrete examples of how to de-politicize band business from band politics. Too many band-led (tribal in many of his case as he studied mainly American examples) entreprises get politicized in the sense that enterprise managers, CEOs, etc. get their marching orders from chief and council, rather than independent boards of directors or their own business decisions. As a result, people get hired for political reasons, not for merit reasons. As a result, he said, the band business managers think their business becomes an employment centre for the community. In one case, a band business kept hiring to satisfy politics and the business payroll became too unmanageable.
These observations about band-politics relationships could easily be discussed in the context of band service delivery and administration. Too many of these areas receive marching orders from elected chief and council, which distorts their mission.
For example, I know of one housing director on a southern Alberta band who complained that as soon as he assumed his position, band members who had been promised housing during the election were demanding their housing allocations. As a result, young families and those truly in need of housing went without it because the chief had to pay back his supporters. Sometimes, my housing director friend said he refused, but the band member would just complain straight to the chief and certain councillors. As the director is responsible to chief, not ultimately in fact to an independent board of directors, he could not refuse for very long. His job and possible advancement was on the line.
We also heard from INAC officials who addressed the government's new federal framework for Aboriginal economic development. Although I support this re-orientation, I think it is sad to see government-led economic development. This has proven not to work. Bureaucrats are not good at picking winners and losers and are not good business managers.
I also think the new economic development framework is sidestepping the issue of private property on reserves. This is the big elephant in the room. One of the policy people said they will continue their program of the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT guaranteeing loans against any losses on First Nation reserves. While this is good on some levels as it introduces the capital to the communities, it is not sustainable for our government to take on every loan on every reserve.
This will create more rent-seeking incentives to secure these loans than to improve conditions on reserves to make investment happen. Sometimes, I think government policy people are living on another planet and are not cognizant of the incentives/disincentives they create through their programs.
This shows me the Feds (even a Conservative government committed to free entreprise in theory) are afraid of opening up the private property debate on reserves. It's still all about government-backed mortgages and other loans. Government-directed economic development. No doubt, First Nations need assistance from Ottawa in economic development, but it should include the necessary tools for them to advance themselves. Individuals need the opportunity to own property that can be pledged against loans.. Individual band members need to liberated to build their own business, not just band-led initiatives.
Anyway, the forum was excellent overall. Besides the gorgeous landscape and the delicious wine (this is wine country, so I had to enjoy some liberal libations!), the Osoyoos people were terrific hosts. The Spirit Ridge Resort where we stayed was beautiful.
This is the start of a great debate in Canada.