A dedicated and highly respected Aboriginal leader, Mr. Fontaine is recognized for his instrumental role in advancing Canada's First Nations people throughout his distinguished career. Recently called "Canada’s foremost Aboriginal leader of his generation", Mr. Fontaine is a proud member of the Sagkeeng First Nation and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba.
Forced to attend an Indian residential school, Mr. Fontaine endured racism, sexual and physical abuse and the despair of losing contact with his family and his culture. He determined to become involved in politics and advocate for First Nations people from a position of leadership. Entering public office as Chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation at the young age of 28, Mr. Fontaine established the first Aboriginal-controlled education system in Canada: a locally-controlled Child and Family Services agency and the first on-reserve alcohol and addictions treatment centre in his home community.
In the early 1980s, he was elected Manitoba Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). When his term expired in 1991, he was elected Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs where he served for three consecutive terms. In this position, he was instrumental in protecting Aboriginal and treaty rights in the Canadian constitution. He also negotiated the first comprehensive self-government plan for Manitoba First Nations and signed historic employment equity agreements which resulted in thousands of job opportunities for First Nations citizens.
In 1997, he became the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations - the highest elected position in First Nations politics. He served in that capacity for an unprecedented three terms during which he advocated for self-determination and the implementation of treaty and land rights as crucial means to alleviating poverty among First Nations peoples. One of the most dramatic and meaningful achievements of Mr. Fontaine's career, was in leading the successful resolution and settlement of claims arising out of the 150-year Indian residential school tragedy. The Final Settlement Agreement now being implemented is the largest, most unique and comprehensive settlement in Canadian history. Worth over $5.2 billion in individual compensation, the settlement also includes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an education fund, healing resources and commemoration funding.
In 2009, Mr. Fontaine retired as National Chief of the AFN. Mr. Fontaine has received many awards and honours for his work, including the first Equitas Award for Human Rights Education, a number of honorary degrees and membership in the Order of Manitoba.
-citation delivered by mentor, Dr. Richard Sigurdson, Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Manitoba