Free enterprise will ease native reserve dependency if we would let it.

I am happy to see Canadian native issues remaining on the forefront of public discussion despite the idiocy coming from some Chief’s, activists and politicians who have jumped onto the whole “Idle No More” movement. While the “Idle No More” crowd is demonstrating great discontent, they really are proposing utterly nothing in the way of solutions to current problems on reserves across Canada, in fact the “Idle No More” bunch has not even really accurately been able to point to the source of the problems. We hear buzz-words and see indignant rage but we really see nothing of merit coming from the demonstrations and illegal blockades being fostered by this movement of activists.

The only thing the thinking public at large really shares with the “Idle No More” movement is the knowledge that current conditions on native reserves are simply no longer acceptable. Productive discourse is quickly lost with most activists as they bleat out loaded terms such as “genocide” and “assimilation”. We can’t reason with stooges who are threatening such actions as “shutting down the Canadian economy” or “activating warriors” either. To get productive discussion on native issues one has to shut out the white noise from the self-serving activists such as Chief Theresa Spence and the ever self-serving Pam Palmater and speak with rational people.

One of the main contributors to native misery is dependency. Dependency damages the pride and sucks the self-worth from an individual and is the chief factor in the outrageous rates of suicide, substance abuse and domestic abuse. There are few ways to destroy a human more effectively than to make them feel directionless and without purpose and dependency fosters and maintains both of those destructive feelings with terrible efficiency.

For most reserves, a person who is tired of depending on the welfare of others does not have the simple choice of going out and seeking a job in the pursuit of personal independence. Most reserves are not near major centres of employment and unless a person has close connections to the Chief and Council on a reserve, they likely will not find employment with the band itself. If reserves and individuals are ever to see fiscal independence and sustainability it will have to be through creative free enterprise. Only through development of reserve based businesses will we see at least some easing of the dependency that is a factor in the vast majority of reserves in Canada.

Simply stating that free enterprise will free reserves from dependency is not enough. Starting and maintaining a successful business is a difficult and potentially terrifying exercise for people native and non-native alike. Natives entrepreneurs face some challenges that non-natives do no have to deal with and I suspect that many people do not realize. Many government grants have been almost blindly thrown at reserves in the hopes of kindling active enterprises but the failure rate of those ventures has been catastrophic for a number of reasons.

Fiscal independence alone is not what is needed on reserves. If money alone could ease things, the Samson Louis-Bull reserve in Alberta would be doing great due to decades of massive oil and gas revenues. The town of Hobbema on that reserve is awash in social discord, poverty and gang violence giving it one of the highest murder rates per-capita in North America. Reserves need fiscal independence but they need the independence built from within in a participatory manner. That builds the pride and social structure that leads to social stability.


Native reserves are loaded with ambitious and creative citizens who would love nothing more than to start a business. There are countless ideas and concepts that would take off if given the proper chance and with the proper support. Many keep thinking that the only support required for such things is in the form of a government grant. The issue is much more complex than that but there are solutions and the payoff for everybody can be great if we can remove some of the roadblocks to native enterprise.

Last fall I attended the second annual Aboriginal Entrepreneurial Conference and Trade Show in Ottawa. In a shameless plug for the family business, I am including a picture of myself manning the booth at our conference display (if you ever need a good deal on ammolite gems, send me an email). The conference was an excellent networking opportunity for everybody and there were some excellent breakout seminars full of information on how to create successful native ventures. There was a great deal of informal discussion among those of us in attendance too and the subject of the special challenges to native businesses came up often. I am going to list below some of the prime hindrances to native enterprises and how we must remove them.


Bureaucracy and Corruption

While bureaucracy and corruption are two different things, I am including them together here as both of those things are tightly tied in native politics and business.

Red tape has killed countless ventures since the beginning of time. In native politics, corrupted red-tape has been brought to a whole new level of art-form. Parasitic members of the Indian Industry from lawyers to band employees to federal employees to council and chiefs to all sorts of consultants have been drawn like flies to poop as they see opportunity to line their pockets through the bureaucracy of reserve business applications. When a reserve citizen wants to start a venture, applications suddenly become mountainous. Consultants seem to spring from the woodwork who offer to ease the paper process when they actually have every interest in expanding the process while bleeding the applicants dry. It is almost standard practice in many (not all by any means) that the Chief and Council will be paid if not outright, then through token salaried positions to them and their families. Many many ventures of great promise have died before even beginning as their founders lose hope in the maze of corruption and bureaucracy that gets dumped upon them. To refuse to play the game is to have applications forever dumped on yourself and a never ending stream of demands for more studies and reports at great cost. To rebel on the more corrupt reserves could even mean losing one’s house if the Chief and Council are annoyed and unprincipled enough.

The prime employer on reserves has been the band itself for decades and decades. Bureaucracies can only grow as band employees generate ever more regulations and forms to try and justify their positions. If any municipality ever had to deal with the overmanagement of a native band, every business in the municipality would go broke within months. Even non-corrupted reserves still choke and kill ventures with their overbearing processes.

Cleaning up the corruption on the band management level begins with transparency. The reason that many of the Chiefs in Canada are up in arms right now is because Harper is bringing in transparency legislation that will expose many of their inept and often corrupt practices. These legislations must pass and self-serving people such as Chief Spence and her band manager/common-law husband must be exposed to the membership of the reserves. When the corrupt are dislodged, streamlining of band management and process can happen.

Indian affairs is loaded with all sorts of bureaucrats who strangle ventures as well. Every level of native management from band level to federal departments needs to be examined and cleaned up. Until that happens, business development will continue to be stunted on reserves.

Reserve Isolation 

Chief Clarence Louie is without doubt one of the brightest and visionary of Chiefs that Canada has seen in generations. Louie’s management of his Osoyoos Band has been incredible in both the changing of band attitudes to the pursuit of successful business ventures. To be fair though, Louie has enjoyed a geographic advantage that many other reserves do not have. Osoyoos is accessible and has a great climate. We can’t expect isolated Northern Canadian Reserves to be able to set up vineyards, wineries, casinos and golf courses as Osoyoos has. This does not mean that those reserves have no opportunities though.

Modern communications now provide incredible new opportunities for isolated reserves. Products, services and attractions can now be marketed in ways that were outright impossible only 15 years ago. Many reserves are placed next to some of the best hunting and fishing areas in the world and native guides for such activities are incomparable in their skills and local knowledge. Many people are more than willing to pay a great deal of money to experience natural activities on reserve lands. Hiking, camping, photography or simply experiencing local culture can draw many people and provide all sorts of local jobs on reserves. The means are now there for reserves to reach out to the world and show what they have.

Genuine native artisan products are always high in demand and reserves boast many incredible artists. Now middle-men and distributors can be cut away as products can be marketed online and shipped directly from reserves to customers.

There are doubtless many more creative ideas and ventures than I can think of that are now potentially feasible on reserves and I am sure many reserve citizens are ready to move on them. It will take training and time though. Simply having access to the internet does not mean a person knows how to utilize it to aid in their business. Literacy programs such as the Harper one and conferences such as the one I attended last fall are the sorts of things that will lead to more reserve citizens taking advantage of the opportunities that modern communications now provide them with.

We need to expand education for aspiring native business people with a more practical curriculum. Liberal Arts are fine and dandy but they won’t teach a person how to manage a promotional website, how to create a business plan or how to effectively market in general. These critical things need to be taught through mentoring and conventional education.

It has to be noted that educational efforts still have to be tailored carefully to take the special circumstances of people from isolated reserves. We can’t simply take somebody from a small and isolated community and drop them into a university in an urban area. The social adjustment could very well destroy the efforts of the individual to get an education as they retreat to the reserve dejected and defeated. While some individuals could integrate perfectly fine in such circumstances, some others will need a differing program. Distance education utilizing the internet provides great options to help with this too. While specially designed programs and the logistics may make these educational efforts costly, the benefits will far outweigh that if we see some independent businesses beginning to set up and remain sustainable on reserves.

Social Challenges 

There is a term I often use called “crabbing”. It is part of an analogy where if you use a bucket to keep crabs in. One crab on it’s own will climb out and escape. If you have multiple crabs none will escape as whenever one tries to climb out, the others will pull the ambitious crab back down to themselves. This syndrome is not at all unique to native reserves but it is more acute due to them often being small and tight knit communities with unfortunately a myriad of socioeconomic problems.

An ambitious person’s efforts can often make less ambitious person uncomfortable as it exposes their own shortcomings to themselves. This often inspires a person to try and drag the person back down to their level. Any successful business person native or non-native will relate about the naysayers who they had to overcome when they began their venture. Many people had to change their social circles to avoid being brought down before they got going. This option of change is simply not available to reserve citizens where social standing is very important and it is not as if there is a number of social circles to choose from. The people bringing the ambitious down are not bad people, they are just troubled people. No native business person is going to shun the family and friends for the sake of their venture so help in coping with some of those challenges for the aspiring business person is vital.

This whole challenge is complex but very real. The simple words “So what, you think you are better than everybody now?” can be terribly cutting and defeating. It will take a cultural shift that celebrates individual success in order for this challenge to fade and that may take generations. For now, native business people need to be coached and encouraged and learn to shake off the naysayers. It is tough but it can be done.

Another challenge comes from off-reserve and it often stems from non-native activists who seem to equate reserve independence with assimilation. These people seem to want to keep these little isolated reserves like zoos where things never change and some sort of hunter gatherer society will re-emerge and thrive if we just keep pouring enough money at it. I saw this attitude greatly as activists stacked hearings for the Mackenzie Valley NEB and Joint Review Panel pipeline hearings. These union funded urban dwellers would wax on about how an influx of money and workers into the Northern communities would destroy culture. I assure you, poverty and dependency are destroying culture on reserves far faster than prosperity ever could.

Lets be clear; the natives of old were among the most independent and self-sustaining people on the planet. It took tough, creative, hard working people to thrive in Canada’s environment hundreds of years ago. The perpetuation of dependency is not how that native strength of independence and culture is going to thrive. Modern times are here. There is a new way to personal independence and it does not mean one is shunning their culture, they are simply evolving. Successful native business people are not “apples”, they are simply creative hardworking people. The outsiders insisting on shielding native reserves from modern concepts must be ignored. Latte-lapping academics and hipsters really don’t know a hell of a lot about reserves no matter how many letters are next to their names on their business cards. Just as going to Mardi Gras for a weekend does not teach one what it is to be Cajun, attending a Powwow or occasional sweat does not imbue much insight to day to day reserve living.


Lack of property is the main and critical hindrance to many native businesses. Due to communal property on reserves, native entrepeneurs can’t build the collateral required as easily as non-natives do. Unsecured credit is difficult for anybody to aquire and it is pretty much impossible for an ambitious native who has never had a job opportunity in order to create a credit rating. Credit is needed for seed capital as well as operating funds. Ordering supplies and making payroll are things that require short-term credit in even the most thriving of businesses. Native business people are terribly handicapped by this circumstance.

One way around this has been through partnerships with interests off reserve. This can work well but is often still hindered by challenges from bureaucrats both on and off reserve. Negative experiences with band business ventures has made many businesses shy away from dealing with reserves over the years too. It will take time and examples of success in order to see more trust build and relationships grow in more joint-ventures. For larger ventures though, partnerships are an excellent route to go as outside interests not only provide funds, they provide experience and mentoring as well. We need to open the path to more of these relationships.

For smaller operations such as artists or lone guides, partnerships are not really an option though the need for financing and training are just as acute as with large ventures. Government backed loans and grants can help but they have a terrible default rate with native ventures unfortunately. The best model for native small business owners would be the acquisition and growth of their own net fiscal worth so that they can build collateral to fund their ventures. Few things inspire an entrepeneur better than putting their own hard earned nest egg on the line for their business. Sure, some people will lose at times. That is the hard nature of business. Some will thrive too and that is what makes it worth it. Blank cheques never lead to future independence.

The activist element and the parasites in the Indian Industry oppose property rights for natives fervently. That opposition alone makes it clear that it is the way to go. Individuals need empowerment on reserves and only through the ownership of property that they have full title to dispose of at will will we see sustainable reserve life grow. Pride and personal estates can grow through property on reserves just as they do off reserves. We need to win the battle to instill those rights for reserve citizens though and it is going to be hard fought.

There is a world of potential on native reserves. These reserves can thrive and prosper if we can shed the myths and trash from the supporters of this status-quo of misery and poverty. Ignore those howling about mythical treaty rights violations or entitlements due to the actions of ancestors. Set aside the activists and the self-serving Chiefs who want to maintain their personal fortunes. Free enterprise on reserves is not a panacea but if allowed to thrive it will at least ease the dependency on some reserves while eliminating it on some others. There are some steps that will need to be taken before this can happen though and I hope that the public begins to discuss, examine and then pursue these changes that we need.

I have been rather rough on some and should clarify; not all band Chiefs, councils, bureaucrats, consultants and employees with Indian Affairs are inept or corrupt by any means. There are some very dedicated people working as hard as they can in all of those categories. Their efforts far too often are encountered by the inept and corrupt who do infest their circles however.

A change in attitudes.

 As per usual, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine is taking advantage of the federal election in order to put his hand out for more money. Hey why not? Effective lobbying means pressuring political figures at times when they are more receptive and there is no better time than during a federal election. While Fontain is excellent at highlighting the suffering and poverty that is occurring on our reservations in Canada, he never seems to be able to point to any solution aside from demanding more funding be thrown at the problem.

 While cutting money off from reservations would certainly lead to a social disaster like none we have ever seen, spending more on that broken system will not lead to any improvement in the lives of the average native either. Spending has been increasing dramatically from all levels of government on aboriginal issues. Despite the extra dollars, we can see an accelerating decrease in the status of life on most reservations in Canada. I have spent most of my adult life working in isolated Northern communities that are predominantly populated by natives. Witnessing the conditions that these people are living within and the speed of decline of their conditions is distressing to say the least.

 The most troubling aspect that I observe is the general attitudes of a major part of the native community. Defeatism, embitterment lack of pride and a deep rooted sense of entitlement is endemic, particularly among youth. This does not bode well for the future and no amount of money will change this growing outlook.

 What is required is strong leadership and management in order to restore the sense of pride and ambition that so many natives have lost. The Assembly of First Nations falls far short in the department of leadership and I do hope that their influence falls by the wayside as individual bands begin to pursue success.

 It is easy to point out shortcomings and failures on the part of many bands and reservations, the examples are unfortunately myriad. What is more productive however is to point out the success stories and highlight them in hopes that other bands learn to emulate them.

 Two bands and their leaders are very worthy of highlighting as successful models. One is the Membertou Band of Nova Scotia led by Chief Terrance Paul, the other is the Osoyoos BC band led by Chief Clarence Louis.

Many have recognized that the development of business on reservations can be a path to increased independence by the bands and their members. There is tremendous potential as reservations have an often completely untapped labor potential, can be geographically well placed for all sorts of business development from raw resources to tourism native reservations enjoy tax and regulation advantages that other jurisdictions do not have. There are a few reasons that business and outside investment has not exploded on native reservations. There have been many examples of corruption on reservations, courts are not eager to enforce contractual obligations on the part of aboriginal businesses and often reservations simply are not prepared to properly manage and maintain a business.

 On the Membertou reservation, Chief Paul recognized this and took the initiative in order to turn his reservation into an attractive place to do business. Paul had the reservation pursue ISO 9001 certification. This can be a tough process to endure and it takes years of dedication. In 2002 that ISO recognition was earned and the results of this have been striking.

 ISO 2001 as defined by Wikipedia:

ISO 9000 is a family of standards for quality management systems. ISO 9000 is maintained by ISO, the International Organization for Standardization and is administered by accreditation and certification bodies. Some of the requirements in ISO 9001 (which is one of the standards in the ISO 9000 family) include


    * a set of procedures that cover all key processes in the business;

    * monitoring processes to ensure they are effective;

    * keeping adequate records;

    * checking output for defects, with appropriate and corrective action where necessary;

    * regularly reviewing individual processes and the quality system itself for effectiveness; and

    * facilitating continual improvement


A company or organization that has been independently audited and certified to be in conformance with ISO 9001 may publicly state that it is “ISO 9001 certified” or “ISO 9001 registered”. Certification to an ISO 9000 standard does not guarantee any quality of end products and services; rather, it certifies that formalized business processes are being applied. Indeed, some companies enter the ISO 9001 certification as a marketing tool.


 The ISO certification alone is hardly enough to change everything, but what it did provide was an assurance of accountability and good management to both the band membership and the business/consumer community. This helped raise the pride and ambition required in order for band members to get involved in the formation and management of new businesses and has helped guide the band council in the ongoing management of these ventures.

 From the Membertou website:

In 1995 the Membertou Band had 37 employees, was operating on a $4 million dollar budget while dealing with a $1 million dollar annual operating deficit.


Over the last ten years, Membertou’s budget has grown from 4 million dollars, to a current 65 million dollar operating budget. The number of employees has jumped from 37 to 531 to date. There are many new internal departments and businesses such as the Membertou Market, Membertou Advanced Solutions, Membertou Mapping Service, Membertou Quality Management Services, and most recently the prestigious Membertou Trade and Convention Centre.




  In surfing the Membertou site, the committment to transparancy is impressive and very apparent. The audited band books are available as PDF and the salaries of  the Chief and council are shown openly.
 While the Membertou still has challenges to overcome, clearly they are on the right track. With the leadership of Chief Paul and recovered sense of pride by the membership, I am optimistic that we will see this band as a positive model for generations to come. The ISO membership was a big step and a good one. The more important aspect of the Manitou story however has been the leadership of Chief Paul and the change in approach and attitude by Paul, the council and the band members.


 Last August I had the opportunity to play a round of golf on the Nk’Mip Canyon Desert Golf course near Osoyoos. On the down side, my golf game is still terrible. On the upside, the golf course, winery and resort that has been created by Chief Clarence Louie is outright world class. Everything was impressive from the service, to the construction to the wine in itself.

 The creation of that resort among other successful initiatives on the part of the Osoyoos band can be directly attributed to the leadership and attitude of of their ambitious and outspoken Chief.

 In a reading a presentation Chief Louie gave to an aboriginal conference held in Fort McMurray in 2006, it is hard not to see the ambition and courage shown by Louie when speaking to a group that is often not receptive to change.






September 21, 2006 at 2:26 AM EDT


FORT McMURRAY — The man with the PowerPoint presentation is miffed.


He is speaking to a large aboriginal conference and some of the attendees, including a few who hold high office, have straggled in.


I can’t stand people who are late,” he says into the microphone.


“Indian Time doesn’t cut it.”


Some giggle, but no one is quite sure how far he is going to go. Just sit back and listen:


“My first rule for success is ‘Show up on time.’ My No. 2 rule for success is follow Rule No. 1.”


“If your life sucks, it’s because you suck.”


“Quit your sniffling.”


“Join the real world — go to school or get a job.”


“Get off of welfare. Get off your butt.”


He pauses, seeming to gauge whether he dare, then does.


“People often say to me, ‘How you doin’?’ Geez — I’m working with Indians — what do you think?”


Now they are openly laughing … applauding. Clarence Louie is everything that was advertised — and more.


“Our ancestors worked for a living,” he says. “So should you.”


He is, fortunately, aboriginal himself. If someone else stood up and said these things — the white columnist standing there with his mouth open, for example — “You’d be seen as a racist.” Instead, Chief Clarence Louie is seen, increasingly, as one of the most interesting and innovative native leaders in the country — even though he avoids national politics.


He has come here to Fort McMurray because the aboriginal community needs, desperately, to start talking about economic development and what all this multibillion-dollar oil madness might mean, for good and for bad.


Clarence Louie is chief — and CEO — of the Osoyoos Band in British Columbia’s South Okanagan. He is 44 years old, though he looks like he would have been an infant when he began his remarkable 20-year-run as chief. He took a band that had been declared bankrupt and taken over by Indian Affairs and he has turned in into an inspiration.


In 2000, the band set a goal of becoming self-sufficient in five years. They’re there.


The Osoyoos, 432 strong, own, among other things, a vineyard, a winery, a golf course and a tourist resort, and they are partners in the Baldy Mountainski development. They have more businesses per capita than any first nation in Canada.


There are not only enough jobs for everyone, there are so many jobs being created that there are now members of 13 other tribal communities working for the Osoyoos. The little band contributes $40-million a year to the area economy.


Chief Louie is tough. He is as proud of the fact that his band fires its own people as well as hires them. He has his mottos pasted throughout the “Rez.” He believes there is “no such thing as consensus,” that there will always be those who disagree. And, he says, he is milquetoast compared to his own mother when it comes to how today’s lazy aboriginal youth, almost exclusively male, should be dealt with.


“Rent a plane,” she told him, “and fly them all to Iraq. Dump ’em off and all the ones who make it back are keepers. Right on, Mom.”


The message he has brought here to the Chipewyan, Dene and Cree who live around the oil sands is equally direct: Get involved, create jobs — and meaningful jobs, not just “window dressing” for the oil companies.


“The biggest employer,” he says, “shouldn’t be the band office.”


He also says the time has come to “get over it.” No more whining about 100-year-old failed experiments. No foolishly looking to the Queen to protect rights.


Louie says aboriginals here and along the Mackenzie Valley should not look at any sharing in development as “rocking-chair money” but as investment opportunity to create sustainable businesses. He wants them to move beyond entry-level jobs to real jobs they “earn” — all the way to the boardrooms. He wants to see “business manners” develop: showing up on time, working extra hours. The business lunch, he says, should be “drive through,” and then right back at it.


“You’re going to lose your language and culture faster in poverty than you will in economic development,” he says to those who say he is ignoring tradition.


Tough talk, at times shocking talk given the audience, but on this day in this community, they took it — and, judging by the response, they loved it.


“Eighty per cent like what I have to say,” Louie says, “Twenty per cent don’t. I always say to the 20 per cent, ‘Get over it. Chances are you’re never going to see me again and I’m never going to see you again. Get some counselling.’”


The first step, he says, is all about leadership. He prides himself on being “a stay-home chief who looks after the potholes in his own backyard” and wastes no time “running around fighting 100-year-old battles.


“The biggest challenge will be how you treat your own people.


“Blaming government? That time is over.”



 Clarence Louie’s departure from what has become pretty much stock lines in pursuit of increased dependence from “leaders” such as Fontaine is pretty clear. Louie is tired of excuses and waiting for somebody else to do the job for him. Louie is not hesitant to be critical of the attitudes of his own people, but he clearly is speaking based on pride and frustration that so many are mired in defeatism and entitlement. It is little wonder that so many “leaders” in groups such as the Assembly of First Nations attack Louie as a sellout.
 It took more than hard talk for Louie to turn his band around from being bankrupt to being what is likely the most successful native band in Canada. Despite his young age, Louie has been Chief for decades and it has taken that long to turn things around. His leadership has been strong and his ambition contagious. This has led to a general change in attitude for the entire band and has allowed them to grow and prosper as they have.

 In the two examples I have outlined above, what I have primarily pointed out was economic success. I understand that the social issues run deep. Pride and financial independence are what has been addressing these issues on the bands highlighted. Reservations need money to get out of their rut. Earned money instills pride and ambition and a sense of purpose. Handouts only add to dependency and entitlement. Lack of self-worth leads to substance abuse and crime. In a sense money is the solution to many native problems. It is how the money is generated that is key to long-term solutions however.

 Chief Louie and Chief Paul demonstrated an ability to look outside the box for solutions to problems on their reservations. Both Chiefs did not wait for others to do the job, instead they demonstrated great leadership and guided their people to success. They did not simply lead people somewhere, they were key in changing the general attitudes of their people and bringing about an appetite for success.

 There is coverage out there in the general media of these great Chiefs. The accomplishments of the Membertou and Osoyoos bands are often overshadowed by coverage of welfare beggars such as Phil Fontain and the ivory tower academic enablers who insist that more blind spending will solve native misery on reservations.

 The failures and problems on reservations need to be pointed out. What is critical however is to highlight the success stories and how they happened.

 I am confident that we will see further success from Chief Louie and Chief Paul in the future. What I really want to see though is more coverage of them and other native leaders being inspired to emulate the actions and attitudes of these Chiefs. If we can turn the trend on reservations in Canada around, we all will win.

 Below is a link to a CBC piece on Louie that is well worth watching as well.

Chief Clarence Louie