Occupation: Entrepreneur. Grand Chief, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. President and owner, RMD Group, which operates about three dozen businesses and properties in the Okanagan (e.g., RMD Environmental creates pellets out of waste wood to use instead of burning coal). Author, most recently of the memoir Fight or Submit: Standing Tall in Two Worlds, a finalist for the 2021 National Business Book Award.
Financial situation: My primary focus is real estate. I own golf courses, marinas, shopping centres, commercial real estate, mobile home parks and modular home parks. I know where my next meal is coming from.
How I got started
I spent the first years of my life living in a tarpaper shack without electricity or running water. I started out as a young kid driving the tractor for my dad. I picked vegetables. I went on to work in the forest industry as a feller, and then in welding.
I would send money home to my father and he’d buy land with it. He said, “You’ll never be poor if you buy land.” For example, I bought a piece of land in Westbank 40 years ago for $12,000. It’s now partially leased for commercial purposes and includes lakeshore properties, and it’s worth $100 million.
I bought another 55 acres and ran cattle on it and grew hay with my father. Eventually, I leased it to a guy who built a small mobile home park. With the income, I bought and leased more land. Meanwhile, the guy with the park grew old and sold the park to me. So, I leased more land to people intending to build mobile home parks and bought them. And the same thing with commercial: I put up a commercial building, and as soon as it was full, there was more than enough money to build another one.
My greatest financial achievement
When I was 26, I wanted to borrow $136,000 to buy a ranch. I went to the bank and the manager told me to do a financial statement. I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Make a list of everything you own, and put the value down and add it all up.” So I did that, but I didn’t add it up. When I came back to the bank, the manager looked at the numbers and said, “You know, you’re a millionaire.” He showed me: I was worth $2.6 million, and I wasn’t even aware of it. He gave me the loan, and I made $6 million from the transaction.
I’ve never worked with a financial advisor. I never trusted anyone and nobody was interested in an Indian.
Affluence is key to culture
If you’re dirt poor, if you’re on welfare, if you’re dependent on the government, then you have no culture. Culture is something you develop if you’re affluent and you have enough time to feed your family and educate them, and are able to give them time to enrich their lives. The West Coast natives, who lived on the sea, who were fed well by the sea — they developed a culture, carving beautiful art and totem poles. My job as chief has been to find ways to allow my people to build the affluence that lets them build culture. When I first became chief, only the elders spoke the Okanagan language. Now we have our own school that teaches it. My grandson visits me and can speak to me in the language and sing the native songs with his drum. That’s something I’m most proud of.
I don’t want my legacy to be about money. My legacy should be about showing people the way.
In 1999, the second time I was Chief of the Westbank First Nation, I led a movement to take back the forest on our people’s traditional lands, forcefully. One guy told me he had a shotgun in his mouth when he saw me on TV, blocking the forestry roads. He took the gun out of his mouth and he went down and joined us, and he never looked back a day in his life. He’s now a very successful chief. So, if I’ve saved one life, that’s my legacy. I hope that when people read my book, they’ll say, “I’m going to get up off my ass and fight for my rights. I will not let injustice happen to my people.”
When I’m not working
I buy and restore antique tractors and cars. I have about nine tractors and 11 cars. My pride is a black 1938 Mercedes-Benz convertible that was driven in Ukraine by a Russian general. I also own a 1918 Model T bus.