Indigenous Economic Partnership Summit (iSummit) in Lloydminster was another huge success on October 15-16, 2014. Legendary Chief Robert Louie of the Westbank First Nation (WFN), BC, led the parade of success stories over the two days. The story of the First Nation turn around since the 50’s, from poverty and virtually no development to today where the WFN is home to hundreds of businesses, a tax collection system and ten thousand non-Indian residents leasing property on reserve lands is unprecedented. “How did they get there?” is a frequently asked question.
The answer is effective leadership with a vision, but also as importantly it is about effective governance and planning. In order to get ready for the responsibility of governing itself, WFN had to prepare and build its infrastructure in order to attract investors. Secondly, it had to install a mechanism to collect taxes in order to support itself. Thirdly, it had to redesign and strengthen its overall governance in order to provide a real sense of certainty to its investors, provide a stable government and leadership and land title insurance. Lastly, WFN established a goal to revitalize and respect its own Indigenous culture and heritage after a century of assimilation policy that has been counterproductive.
A key process on the path to self-government is the necessity to have a comprehensive community plan (CCP). The CCP guides the nation’s growth, development, resource management and community planning for reserve lands and traditional territory of WFN. The nation’s citizens have ongoing input and fully participate in the CCP, which is a process that is holistic and driven by the community. The accomplishments to date, which are firsts in Canada, include: the largest residential and commercial development; more land and lease transactions; between 2006 and 2012 WFN issued $335M in building permits; almost 4,000 residences on reserve; over 400 businesses on WFN lands; over 1.3M sq ft of shopping centre development; over $1.3B in assessed property taxes and over $12M in property tax revenues collected on an annual basis.
GDP has grown from $100 M to $500M in the past decade. WFN has contributed $80M in annual fiscal revenue through sales tax, personal income tax and corporate tax on WFN lands. In terms of revenues on WFN lands, the nation collects 38% through taxation, 22% from government transfers and 40% is own source revenue (fees, charges and investment).
Aside from the obvious improved cash flow and infrastructure, WFN now has the financial resources to invest in cultural awareness and cultural programming. Another spinoff effect is the renewed community pride in being Okanagan First Nations people. “If I could offer advice to First Nation leaders across the country, it would be that we must all step up immediately to fine tune our collective vision about our peoples future whatever that might be and we must act now to implement that vision” said Chief Robert Louie. “We must take charge as leaders and accept the responsibility that goes along with leadership” he added.
WFN may not be the perfect model for other Nations but the common aspects that can be duplicated easily include the vision to change, the intestinal fortitude to take full responsibility, and the willingness to establish and implement a Comprehensive Community Plan that links all of the other planning tools that includes a Self-Government Agreement, a Self-Government Implementation Plan, a Constitution, a Land Use Plan and a Government Strategic Plan. The WFN rebuilding story was designed through a lot of hard work, financial resources and commitment to follow through. WFN is indeed a leader in the twenty-first century and has raised the bar in the Indigenous community world-wide.
The I-Summit is being held on October 14 – 15, 2015, registration information can be found at: http://ieps.ca
Milton Tootoosis, Chair of the Saskatchewan First Nations Economic Development Network