W.E. (Bill) Belliveau
737-2019-May 18 – Indigenous leasdership could save the New Brunswick economy...
I spent a couple of days this week in conference with an indigenous economic development group. It was
impressive. This was a group of young, well educated indigenous people from New Brunswick discussing
their future in terms of financial independence, self-governance, innovation and entrepreneurship. They
talked about the Indian Act as a 17th century, colonial governance structure struggling to keep its head
above water in the twenty first centuryt. They acknowledged their dependence on the federal government
but talked about how they were reducing that dependence by negotiating changes to the rules, creating
development corporations, investing in development, buying land, growing businesses and earning
profits. They stood in stark contrast to the every day excuse of New Brunswick dependence on federal
transfers (equalization) and employment insurance subsidies. They sited examples of vision and real
success in Madawaska, Tobique, St. Mary’s, Eel River Bar, Millbrook and Membertou.
The contrast was so stark that I had to find answers. Leadership, determination to become self-sufficient
and persistance were at the top of the list, followed closely by education, community and pride. Our
Indian community has a relatively young population that is becoming highly educated. Most importantly,
unlike their counterparts in the non-indigenous community they are staying in the province after
graduation to help their people escape the economic and social imprisonment that is the Indian Act.
The Indian Act is an Act of Parliament that concerns registered Indians and the system of Indian
reserves. First passed in 1876 and still in force with amendments, it is the primary document which
defines how the Government of Canada interacts with the 614 First Nations in Canada and their
members. Throughout its history the Act has been a subject of controversy and remains so to this day,
even though it has been amended numerous times.
The Act is wide-ranging and covers governance, land use, healthcare, education and development on
Indian reserves. The original Indian Act dictates how reserves operate. It sets out governance rules, and
spells out the powers of "band councils". It defines who is and who is not recognized as an "Indian"..
The Constitution Act, 1867 assigns indigenous issues to the federal govrnment, rather than provincial,
governments and replaced any laws on the matter passed by a local legislature before a province joined
Confederation. The Act is not a treaty. It’s imposed on indigenous peoples by the Government of Canada.
Many First Nations leaders characterize the Act as a 17th century albatros (a burden) that should be
abandoned in the 21st century. Others cling to it as a social and economic security blanket. The two
positions generally align on a generational basis with elders clinging to the security and younger, better
educated band members pushing for self-governance and financial independence. The answer probably
lies somewhere in the middle with gradual movement towards dissolution.
Keynote speaker at the conference was Chief Clarence Louie, from the Osoyoos Indian Band in southern
British Columbia, first elected in 1984. Under his leadership, the Band has developed into a multi-faceted
corporation that owns businesses and employs hundreds of people. In 2002, the Band opened the first
Indigenous-owned winery in North America named Nk’Mip Cellars. It currently owns and operates
vineyards, retail stores, a construction company, a Readi-Mix company, a championship golf course,
hotels and three resorts.
W.E. (Bill) Belliveau
Chief Louis is not without controversey. His advice to young men on his home reserve? “Get a damn job,
be a man. It should be embarrassing for you to raise your kids on welfare.” Looking to succeed in the
workplace? “Be punctual. Be on time. Indian time doesn’t cut it.”
While many other chiefs are preoccupied with old treaty claims and calls for more government support,
Louie’s prime focus is clear-cut: put people to work. ‘The worst thing Indian Affairs ever brought to our
communities was welfare.’ he says. Our oldtimers didn’t survive on welfare. Every First Nation society that
I’ve studied came from a working culture. Our people worked for a living.
The Chief also talked about money. I don’t love money,” he said, speaking quietly through a
microphone. “I learned many years ago that money equals opportunity. That’s why I love making money –
so that my people have opportunity.” His reserve operates more businesses per capita than any other in
Canada. Not only are 80 per cent of Osoyoos members employed, Louie says, but the reserve employes
people from nearly 40 other reserves and non-native communities in provinces and territories across
Canada. “We have more jobs than we do band members” he says.
This is not to say that the Osoyoos’ story can be recreated in New Brunswick. Chief Louis has location,
climate and market-size advantages that we don’t have in New Brunswick but the principles of leadership
and vision are operational in some New Brunswick First Nations communities and they are beginning to
drive the economies of adjacent non-indigenous municipalities. Just as First Nations need to gradually
disengage from the Indian Act and move toward economic self-sufficiency, New Brunswick’s non-
indigenous community needs to gradually disengage from federal transfers and employment insurance
subsidies to build an economy that will support at least a million people. All we need is leadership, a little
help from the federal government to fund the transition investment and a community of well educated
young people who are willing to invest their futures in New Brunswick.
W.E. (Bill) Belliveau is a Shediac resident and business consultant.