The community mourns a First Nations musician

WINNIPEG – Family, friends and the music industry in Manitoba mourn the sudden death of multi-award-winning First Nations musician Vince Fontaine this week.

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Nahanni Fontaine says the unexpected death of her uncle in Winnipeg has been devastating for the family and the community.

“All death is difficult, but I think there is something to be said when a death is so sudden, and you don’t really get a chance to say goodbye,” she said during a telephone interview.

Fontaine, who is an NDP member in the Manitoba legislature, said his 62-year-old uncle from the Sagkeeng First Nation died of a heart attack on Tuesday.

“It’s very hard to understand that all of a sudden. One minute he was there and the next he was gone,” she said on Wednesday.

Fontaine first found success in the music industry in 1995 as a guitarist for the roots rock band Eagle & Hawk. He co-founded the group with former Canadian Football League all-star Troy Westwood. The group would eventually become one of the country’s most famous and internationally touring indigenous groups, according to Fontaine’s biography.

Over its decades of history, the group has won dozens of major nominations and music awards, including a 2002 Juno and a Western Canadian Music Award.

Eagle & Hawk’s performances included two Canada Day shows on Parliament Hill, two appearances at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and one at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. The group has made a dozen tours in Europe.

Fontaine expanded his musical reach with a new number in 2011 when he created the folk-pop group Indian City, which brought together a collective of musicians and showcased rich and vibrant Indigenous cultures.

“He was a champion of Indigenous artists and all that Indigenous artists have to offer to the industry and to Canada,” said Nahanni Fontaine.

Sean McManus, executive director of the nonprofit Manitoba Music, said Fontaine often helps the organization as a board member or by presenting ideas for events and tours.

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Most recently, he took on a mentoring role for young Indigenous artists, McManus said.

“He had a huge influence on… raising the voice of Indigenous artists and contributing to their own confidence and sense of what could be accomplished.

Fontaine was passionate and proud of his work in the industry, but those close to him say that his family and friends brought the most joy to his life.

“He was exceptionally proud of his family, and in particular of his children,” said Jay Bodner, singer of Eagle & Hawk.

Bodner joined the group in 1998 after Westwood had to leave to focus on his football career.

Bodner said her relationship with Fontaine “has translated to just beyond music” and the two have supported each other through “the bumps, bruises, scrapes and hits” of life.

Fontaine said his uncle looked more like a brother because they were only 12 years apart.

She credits her love and encouragement for helping her change the course of her life. She remembers how Fontaine brought her home and introduced her to an elderly person 30 years ago when she was battling drugs and alcohol.

“He welcomed me with open arms. He loved me and he didn’t judge me. He saved my life. He did it for all of us,” she said.

“Everyone has stories of Vince giving them a chance to play music or raise and show them off, show their talents or just talk to them.

“Everyone has a story like that.”

A Celebration of Life is scheduled for Sunday at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks in Winnipeg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 12, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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