A real hero for aboriginal people

Tom Fletcher looks at the Idle No More protests in his weekly column.

VICTORIA – The century-old plight of Canada’s aboriginal people is back in the public eye, thanks to protests dubbed Idle No More.

As with Occupy protests last year, the demands are vague. One of the claims, repeated in media coverage of protests, is that the federal government is moving to end the historic Indian Act restriction against selling reserve land.

A look at the federal legislation, Bill C-45, shows this is not the case. Amendments ease restrictive provisions for leasing reserve land, which remains property of the Crown held in perpetuity for the aboriginal community.

This change was initiated by B.C. aboriginal leaders so they can follow the trail blazed by one of the most entrepreneurial chiefs in Canadian history.

His name is Ron Derrickson, and he served six terms as chief of the Westbank First Nation near Kelowna. One of my first big reporting assignments was covering a Royal Commission into his administration’s business affairs in the mid-1980s.

There had been an astonishing 17 federal investigations before that, stemming from local claims that Derrickson was just too successful. He drove a big black Mercedes, wore expensive suits, and established a bunch of enterprises, including Canada’s first water slide.

The commission was chaired by John Hall, then known as the Crown prosecutor who put serial killer Clifford Olson away, and now an appeal court judge.

Derrickson’s suit jacket had a conspicuous bulge as he took the stand each day. He was packing a semi-automatic pistol, having demanded and received a carry permit after a brutal attempt on his life.

The hit man, an ex-cop, was hired by people who didn’t like the bottom-line way Derrickson ran Westbank’s lease-hold mobile home parks. He showed up at Derrickson’s home one day and tried to beat him to death with a metal bar. Badly injured, Derrickson made it to his gun cabinet and shot his assailant, who survived to go to prison.

Derrickson testified that his approach to the Indian Affairs bureaucracy was simple. He did business, and if they didn’t like it, they could tell him. Reserve land can’t be sold, so he leased it, offering people a low-cost way to enjoy the sunny Okanagan.

His business plan was also simple. Drive to California and see what they’re doing. Drive back and do it in B.C.

A 2007 profile of Derrickson by Greg Fjetland in Canadian Business magazine describes how he came by his approach to Ottawa. He grew up “dirt poor, living in a tar paper shack.” His family name was Tousawasket, until the local Indian Agent drew an Anglo name out of a hat.

He and his brother were the first aboriginal kids to attend public school in Kelowna. Racist bullying drove his parents to move him to a residential school in Washington State.

He dropped out in Grade 9, toiled on farms, learned to weld, and worked his way into ranching, real estate and politics. He never gave up or backed down, ever.

The Hall commission and all previous government probes concluded that he did nothing wrong. Derrickson sued his local accusers and won, and Ottawa began to change its racist, paternalistic ways.

Which brings us back to today. Derrickson’s pioneering work is still changing the Indian Act for the better. This effort is under dishonest attack from people whose legacy is mainly incompetence and failure. Protesters demand more unearned public subsidy, and a petulant soup-only strike is celebrated as an act of bravery.

Choose your own hero. I’ve chosen mine.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

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