Nestled in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, the 470-person Osoyoos Indian Band, led by Chief Clarence Louie, is providing a telling answer to the question of how best to create jobs. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., and other national capitals around the globe are well-advised to pay heed.
Enterprise is the tribe’s middle name, and Chief Louie has been adamant about relying on that private-sector recipe to foster economic well-being. Unemployment is running in the low single digits versus 8.3 percent here in the United States. On average, joblessness among Indian tribes in North America, which subsist largely on government welfare payments beyond any gaming and resort operations, averages over 20 percent and runs as high as 80 percent on certain reservations. By contrast, all Osoyoos who want to be employed in the band’s businesses have that opportunity.
The Osoyoos own or co-own numerous businesses, including: Nk’Mip Cellars, a joint venture with Constellation Brands Inc. and North America’s first Aboriginal-owned winery; Spirit Ridge Vineyard and Resort, one of only nine four-star resorts in British Columbia; assorted vineyards and fruit and vegetable producing parcels; a ski resort; two golf courses; a concrete and construction company; and a campground and recreational vehicle park. A business park is slated to open later this month. And the band opened the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, which highlights Okanagan culture and history and includes 1,000 acres of Canada’s last remaining pocket desert, thus promoting eco-tourism.
It wasn’t always this way. Forty years ago the Osoyoos were bankrupt and living on the government dole. Unemployment was rampant. Moreover, when the North American Free Trade Agreement began phasing in during the early 1990s, locals expected the demise of the Canadian grape-growing and wine-production industries, of which the Okanagan was a prime example, due to competition from rival regions in the U.S. The Osoyoos own 32,000 acres in the valley ideally devoted to growing grapes and other fruits and vegetables.
What has transpired over the past two decades with the Osoyoos is dramatic testimony to what individuals can accomplish if given responsibility and accountability for their own destiny rather than being treated like necessary dependents of the state. Instead of assuming that their fate was sealed, the Osoyoos responded to the powerful inducement of free markets and became world-class entrepreneurs. Grape growing has expanded by an order of magnitude since 1990. The wines produced by Nk’Mip Cellars are garnering top awards in international competitions. Fruit and vegetable production and tourism are booming. Visitors to the Okanagan find a First Nation that seems to be largely minting money these days on account of its passion for entrepreneurship.
Significantly, British Columbia’s government moved away from price supports to buffer grape growers from the market’s ups and downs with the advent of NAFTA. While well-intentioned and employed elsewhere in Canada, such price supports have the unwanted consequence of shielding suppliers from the market’s reactions to the quality of any given vintage. Such signals are powerful mechanisms over time to promote exceptional wines and thereby spur demand and profits for firms that respond most appropriately to those signals. Based on British Columbia’s success, Ontario-Canada’s other largest wine-producing province-is now giving stronger consideration to a less restrictive system of price supports as a means to more fully unleash the potential of its own vintners.
Some 235 years ago, Adam Smith wrote that "what is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great Kingdom." The Osoyoos have shown that this insight applies equally well to First Nations bands and how the successes of their entrepreneurial attitude can be mirrored on a much larger scale by republics such as ours. Lasting employment and socio-economic well-being are not created by treating individual citizens as requiring a government handout on which to survive. Rather, viewing all individuals as having certain inalienable rights and abilities to put a dent in the universe through their creativity, hard work and persistence is a much more successful recipe.
Like so many other entrepreneurs, such as Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Ratan Tata, Anita Roddick, Akio Morita and Li Ka-shing, Chief Louie and his Osoyoos Indian Band prove that such individuals come in all races, ethnicities, nationalities and genders and have the innate and most potent capacity to create meaningful jobs and promote the wealth of nations.
Mark A. Zupan is dean of the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business.
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