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Phillip Fontaine discusses his childhood

Don't be fooled by his soft-spoken and conciliatory manner. Phil Fontaine has been a dominant force in native politics since the 1970s. The Manitoba chief who once admitted to being petrified of public speaking was one of the first to speak publicly about residential school abuse. From masterminding the death of Meech Lake to dismantling the Department of Indian Affairs in Manitoba, the tenacious leader of Canada's most powerful native group has orchestrated key deals aimed at improving the quality of life for his people.

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Politics is in Phil Fontaine's blood. Growing up on Manitoba's Fort Alexander reserve, Fontaine saw many members of his extended family play an integral part in reserve politics. His mother, Agnes Fontaine, was the first Indian woman to be elected to band council, as her son proudly boasts in this CBC Television excerpt. But his childhood was short-lived. When Fontaine was six, he was taken away from his home and sent to a residential school.

Fontaine's residential school years were bittersweet. He was sexually and physically abused, a past which would play a crucial role later in his life. Despite the experience, Fontaine did well and quickly developed an interest in politics. There was just one problem. The man destined for public life was a lousy public speaker. But he would overcome the impediment to appear on the political scene at age 27 as the elected chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation. 
• Phillip Fontaine was born on Sept. 20, 1944, on Fort Alexander reserve (now Sagkeeng First Nation), an Anishnabe community about 130 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

• Fontaine was six when his father died, leaving his mother to raise 12 children on her own.

• Growing up, Fontaine was a bit of a hellraiser, prone to drinking and running wild. Then, in his early twenties Fontaine cleaned up his act. He joined the Company of Young Canadians, married Janet Spence, the daughter of a prominent native leader, and began volunteering for various community development projects across the North.

• The Canadian government established The Company of Young Canadians (CYC) in 1966 to support various community-based projects working towards social change. The CYC folded in 1970.

• In 1976, Fontaine was appointed regional director general for the Yukon at the Department of Indian Northern Affairs.

• Fontaine earned a BA in political science from the University of Manitoba in 1981.

• Fontaine is an avid runner. He says he uses the time to work on his speeches. "I've made some of my best speeches when I'm running. Running gives you a clear mind." — in Manitoba Business, March 1993

• Fontaine has two children and five grandchildren. He is currently based in Ottawa (2005).

Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: June 11, 1991
Guest(s): Phil Fontaine
Reporter: Jerry Thompson
Duration: 4:14

Last updated: April 30, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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