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'He was a champion of Indigenous artists': Community mourns First Nations musician

WINNIPEG — Family, friends and the music industry in Manitoba are in mourning after multi-award-winning First Nations musician Vince Fontaine died suddenly this week.
Vince Fontaine of Eagle & Hawk waits for a scrimmage to begin during practice for the Juno Cup celebrity hockey game at the Dave Andreychuk Mountain Arena in Hamilton, Ont., on Thursday, March 12, 2015. Family, friends, and the music industry in Manitoba are in mourning after Fontaine, a multi-award-winning First Nations musician, died suddenly this week in Winnipeg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

WINNIPEG — Family, friends and the music industry in Manitoba are in mourning after multi-award-winning First Nations musician Vince Fontaine died suddenly this week. 

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

"Any death is difficult, but I think there is something to be said when a death is so sudden, and you don't really get an opportunity to say goodbye," she said in a phone interview. 

Fontaine, who is an NDP member of the Manitoba legislative assembly, said her 62-year-old uncle from the Sagkeeng First Nation died Tuesday from a heart attack.

"It's very hard to wrap your head around that all of a sudden. One minute he was here and the next he is gone," she said Wednesday. 

Fontaine first gained success in the music industry in 1995 as a guitarist of the roots-rock group Eagle & Hawk. He co-founded the band with former Canadian Football League all-star Troy Westwood. The group would eventually become one of the country's most celebrated and internationally-touring Indigenous bands, says Fontaine's biography. 

In its decades-long history, the band garnered dozens of major music awards nominations and wins, including a Juno in 2002 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 Vancouver 2010 Olympics. The band toured Europe a dozen times.

Fontaine expanded his musical reach with a new act 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 everything that Indigenous artists have to offer to the industry and to Canada," said Nahanni Fontaine. 

Sean McManus, executive director of non-profit Manitoba Music, said Fontaine would often help the organization as a member of the board of directors or by pitching event and touring ideas. 

More recently, he took on a mentor role for young, Indigenous artists, said McManus. 

"He had a huge influence on ... elevating the voices 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 who were close to him say his family and friends brought the most joy to his life.  

"He was exceptionally proud of his family, and especially his kids," said Jay Bodner, lead singer for Eagle & Hawk.

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

Bodner said his relationship with Fontaine "translated just beyond music" and the two supported each other during life's "bumps, bruises, scrapes and successes."

Fontaine said her uncle was more like a brother because they were only 12 years apart.

She credits his love and encouragement for helping her change the trajectory of her life. She recalled how Fontaine brought her into his home and introduced her to an elder 30 years ago as she struggled with drugs and alcohol. 

"He welcomed me with open arms. He loved me and he was non-judgmental. He saved my life. He did that for all of us," she said. 

"Everybody has stories of Vince giving them a chance at music or lifting them up and highlighting them, showcasing their talents or just talking to them.

"Everybody has a story like that."

A celebration of life is planned for Sunday at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks in Winnipeg.

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


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

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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