Ten years after becoming one of the first aboriginal bands in Canada to get self-government, the Westbank First Nation has seen itself grow into not only one of the most prosperous First Nations in the country, but also an economic powerhouse in the Central Okanagan.
Through its own lands act, part of its self-government agreement with the federal government, locatees—band members who control large pieces of reserve land—have developed residential, commercial and retail projects that have changed the retail landscape in the area.
While there are still many vacant commercial properties following the most recent building boom on the Westside reserves adjacent to Westbank and in the Lakeview Heights area, the creation of the projects not only saw the arrival of many “big-box” stores, but also the movement of some out of the downtown Westbank area and onto reserve land.
It has also seen housing developments shoot up, pushing the reserve population to around 10,000. Most of those residents are non-native—the WFN has the largest concentration of non-aboriginal housing and population in Canada.
“Self-government has opened doors to opportunities that the community would not have seen if we were still governed by Canada,” said WFN Chief Robert Louie on Wednesday, the 10th anniversary of the self-government act going into force.
“Not only has self-government increased the accountability and transparency of the WFN government, as well as bringing a great sense of pride to our community, but it has also resulted in increased opportunities for our members, increased property values and an improved standard of living.”
Eleven years ago, the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Act received Royal assent in Ottawa following a lengthy negotiation with the federal government and became law on May 6, 2004.
It did not, however, come into force until April 1, 2005, due in part to the federal government’s demand that a process be set up to protect the interests of the thousands of non-native residents living on the reserves.
To make sure their views were communicated to the WFN council—elected by the few hundred WFN members only—an advisory council was set up to act as a conduit between the non-native residents and the council.
Self-government also had to overcome protests by some band members, concerned about what they felt would be the loss of their rights under the federal government’s Indian Act.
Since self-government, including the lands act and the WFN constitution, came into effect, commercial development on the WFN’s Westside reserves has exploded.
According to the WFN, in 2011 it contributed more than $80 million to the national and provincial government coffers in sales taxes, personal income taxes of both native and non-native reserve residents and corporate taxes. And that number has grown since then.
The WFN says it currently generates more than $500 million annually for the local economy and remains one of the largest employers on the Westside.
“I am very proud of how far our community has come over the past 10 years,” said Louie, who has been WFN chief since 2002. Prior to that he served as chief for 10 years from 1986 to 1996.
In addition to controlling its own affairs, including having taxation powers, dealing with land issues, infrastructure, health, housing and education, it also has agreements with surrounding local government and the regional district to be part of their programs creating what Louie once said was his desire to see on the Westside, a seamless community that includes both West Kelowna, which is just eight years old‚ and the WFN.