Osoyoos Indian Band and Vincor

The Osoyoos Indian band (OIB), a member community of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, was formed in 1877, and is located in the southern most corner of BC. Osoyoos is Canada’s only desert, coined a “pocket desert”, and is one of Canada’s foremost agricultural and tourism regions. This fragile shrub-grassland ecosystem is also home to the threatened Western rattlesnake and Burrowing Owl, as well as 100 species of plants and 300 species of wildlife found nowhere else in Canada. Okanagan First Nations have been in this region for thousands of years and have used at least 130 of the more than 260 indigenous plants for food, healing and technology.

Over 400 band members live and work on the 32, 200 acre reserve which stretches from Oliver to Osoyoos. The OIB is recognized as one of the most business savvy and business friendly nations and has the distinction of owning the most businesses per capita than any other First Nation in Canada. But this has not always been the case. Chief Clarence Louie was first elected band Chief in 1985, a time when the band had been declared bankrupt and was managed by Indian Affairs. Chief Louie believed that the success of the people was tied directly to their participation in the economy. “The Band does not owe its membership dependency it owes them an opportunity and a chance to become independent.” And he has done just that. Starting in 1988 with the establishment of the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation (OIBDC), he has worked diligently to create self-reliance for the band through diverse economic development including agriculture, eco-tourism, commercial, industrial and residential. This has created a thriving economy and permanent jobs resulting in financial independence and virtually no unemployment. OIBC operates ten companies employing over 500 people.

Diversification is Key

The Oliver and Osoyoos area attracts over 400,000 visitors each year, and the Band is heavily dependent on tourism for jobs. The $100 million destination NK’MIP (pronounced In-ka-MEEP) Resort encompasses Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa, Sonora Dunes, a 9-hole, par 35 golf facility and NK’MIP RV Park. Anchoring this multi-million dollar resort is the NK’MIP Desert Cultural Centre, showcasing the rich heritage and traditions of the Okanagan people. This $9 million award winning, semi-underground building, a design paying homage to the winter dwellings of the Okanagan First Nations, is eco-friendly with its use of pine beetle-damaged wood, rammed earth wall, green roof, and use of radiant heating and cooling. Visitors to the site can explore the two kilometers of walking trails, cultural and nature exhibits and learn about the rattlesnake research and tagging programs.

Partnership is nothing new to the OIBC. They have partnered with Mt Baldy Ski Corporation, a resort 30 min from both Oliver and Osoyoos, and Bellstar Hotels and Resorts to build the Canyon River Resort, a year-round vacation resort with 450 residences.

But not all of the revenue comes from tourism. OIBC owns Oliver Readi-Mix, a concrete and aggregate company and NK’MIP Construction, which builds and renovates residential and commercial buildings on and off reserve.

Plans are underway to build a $300 million, 378 cell, maximum security prison on the Senkulmen Business Park, an industrial park on the Osoyoos First Nations land. This project will create 1000 direct and indirect jobs during construction and when completed in 2016, will employ 240 full-time staff. Not only could the corporation offer a “shovel-ready” site, an option was created that allowed them to build the prison as a public-private partnership. The need to raise capital has always hindered First Nation communities as reserve lands can’t be mortgaged. But, with the revenues of the band’s NK’MIP Resort and other business ventures as collateral, they could now raise the capital through a municipal-type bond – a first in Canada for a native band. The corporation’s proven track record of successfully managing major projects – over $100 million dollars in capital expenditures made on the band lands in the past eight years – was in large part the reason the OIB site was selected.

Grape Growing History

The OIB has had a long history of being associated with the wine industry and had talked about owning their own winery for over three decades. In 1968, the Inkameep Vineyards was developed on the reserve just north of Oliver and is the source of high quality vinfera grapes for many of the wineries in the region. At 230 acres, it is still one of the single largest vineyards in the Okanagan. Their next foray into wine was in 1980, when the Band built a building near Oliver and leased it to Bright and Co. (now Vincor) which leased the building for 25 years and equipped it as winery, currently the Jackson-Triggs Winery. The lease has since been extended, Vincor has spent millions of dollars in expansions and over 60 percent of the employees at the winery are band members.

NK’MIP Cellars – A Return to the Drawing Board

NK’MIP Cellars is actually a “plan B”. In 1997, the Band proposed a destination casino as an anchor to the resort. But, the provincial government turned down the proposal and the idea of NK’MIP Cellars was borne. This joint venture with Vincor International was met with some concern at first as the Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate Winery was already established at the north end of the reserve in Oliver. But, when you live in an area with outstanding grape-growing potential, the location dictates what you’re going to do. Vineyards produce the best return on an acre than any other agricultural crop.

The Osoyoos Band contributed approx $4 million, about $3 million of federal funds, and holds 51% of NK’MIP Cellars, while Vincor and its parent company Constellation, Canada’s largest producer and marketer of wine, own 49% and have operating control.

Award Winning Winery

When NK’MIP Cellars, North America’s first Indigenous owned and operated winery, opened in September 2002, the $7 million dollar project included not only the winery, but a 21 acre vineyard. This award winning winery features premium VQA wines and was designed by Penticton-based architect, Robert Mackenzie. All visitors who tour the winery share in the history and traditions of the OIB, and tours are further enhanced through the architecture of the 18,000 square foot building which displays native art and artifacts. The open-air patio, which serves indigenous-inspired cuisine, offers spectacular views of Osoyoos Lake and the vineyards below – showcasing the unique nature and beauty of the sage desert surroundings. NK’MIP Cellars also has the distinction of having the World’s first, First Nations assistant winemaker – band member Justin Hall.

NK’MIP Cellars was designed as a small winery with a production capacity of 18,000 cases, focusing not on volume, but in the creation of small quantities of high-end wine. The winery is equipped to handle approximately 60% red grapes and 40% white. The wines produced are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Riesling Ice Wine. NK’MIP Cellars has won over 140 wine awards, and their 2012 NK’MIP Cellars Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine was recently awarded a perfect score of 100.

The popularity of wine vineyards bloomed across the Osoyoos lands and as well as the development of land leases, such as the Spirit Ridge Resort and Spa and the Sonora Dunes Golf Course, more than 1,000 acres of agricultural leases were also developed to companies like Vincor and Mission Hill Wineries, representing more than 20 per cent of the grape production in BC. Vincor has invested more than $45 million in vineyards, equipment and plant operations on the band land. The partnership appears simple. Vincor gets access to the high quality vineyards and OIB not only ensures that NK’MIP Cellars has access to the expertise in professional winemaking and marketing, they have access to resources to develop their land. But it’s more complex than that.

The key factor in the success of the OIB is the presence of strong and determined business leadership backed by the band members. The focus of the OIB’s economic development is through preserving culture, and profits from the OIBDC support education and training for all band members who want to access it. OIB has invested in the education of their young people by building a preschool and grade school and they expect to graduate future leaders of the community. But challenges remain. The OIB identifies their major weakness as the leftover dysfunction from a colonial past.

Lessons Learned

“The effective governance principle of Economic Realization recognizes that First Nation governments possess the right and the tools to develop their land into sustainable economies. Indigenous title includes an inescapable economic component. OIB continues to be highly successful in applying this principle on their reserve lands.”