Vince Fontaine, 'true visionary' and Juno Award-winning Manitoba musician, dies at 60

Vince Fontaine, former frontman of the folk-rock group Indian City and co-founder of Eagle & Hawk, died after suffering a heart attack, says his bandmate of 25 years.

Former frontman of folk-rock group Indian City, co-founder of Eagle & Hawk suffered heart attack: bandmate

Vince Fontaine, co-founder of Eagle & Hawk, performs with the band for an Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs event at the Winnipeg convention centre in December 2019. Fontaine, 60, died this week. (Andrew Wall)

Friends, loved ones and Manitoba's music community are mourning the loss of Juno-Award-winning guitarist Vince Fontaine.

The co-founder of Eagle & Hawk and former member of folk-rock group Indian City died this week after suffering a heart attack, said Jay Bodner, his bandmate of 25 years.

Fontaine was 60.

"It was very sudden. He and I were texting yesterday morning about COVID and gigs down the road," Bodner told host Marcy Markusa in an interview with CBC Manitoba's Information Radio on Wednesday.

"We're just all speechless and in shock."

A member of Sagkeeng First Nation, Fontaine fronted the Juno-nominated Indian City.

Eagle & Hawk released 10 albums, including their debut in 1997. Fontaine and Bodner won numerous awards with Eagle & Hawk at the Junos, Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, Western Canadian Music Awards, Native American Music Awards and more.

They toured the world, playing notable events like the Olympics and the New Orleans Jazz Fest.

Fontaine was known for his work ethic early on and later as a mentor for young Indigenous musicians in Winnipeg and beyond, Bodner said.

"He picked up the torch from the original Indigenous acts in this city, like Shingoose and C-Weed and Billy Joe Green," Bodner said. "He really, really worked in his butt off to move the dial and pushing Indigenous music into the mainstream."

Vince Fontaine, left, and Jay Bodner play the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the early 2000s. They played together for 25 years. (Submitted by Jay Bodner)

Bodner and Fontaine wrapped a couple of shows in December and were discussing future shows amid the pandemic.

Bodner said he is at a loss.

"Right now I am just really processing," he said. "We had a really fantastic run."

Fontaine's niece and NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine (St. Johns) posted on social media that family is stunned and devastated.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Fontaine was a highly celebrated Indigenous songwriter and composer, but he also "never said no when it came to helping Indigenous people."

"But he did so quietly," Dumas said in a news release. "This is such a tragic loss as he was a musical beacon and a cultural ambassador for First Nations throughout North America and throughout the world."

Rhonda Head, an award-winning classical singer, toured southern Manitoba with Fontaine last summer.

She was one of many people mentored by Fontaine over the years. 

Opera singer Rhonda Head credits Fontaine for blazing a trail that she says helped shape her own career. (Submitted by Rhonda Head)

"He has so much knowledge, he was a go-getter and always hustling and networking and wanting to connect musicians," she said.

"I started mirroring him and copying what he was doing, so I credit my successes because of him."

Head fondly remembers the night both she and Fontaine won Native American Music Awards. They remained close after that.

"He was very loving and caring and sharing and very passionate," said Head. "We're all devastated right now."

David McLeod, the CEO of Native Communications Inc. (NCI FM), said Fontaine's impact nurturing younger generations of Indigenous musicians is part of his legacy.

David McLeod, CEO of NCI FM, said Fontaine was a visionary concerned with lifting up and connecting people through music. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

He was much more than a band leader, said McLeod.

"He built a foundation for other acts to get that worldwide recognition, which is so deserved within the Indigenous community," he said.

"The underlying message of all the work Vince did was to connect people through the arts, through love, through understanding and sharing time together. A true visionary."

Friends and family mourn Vince Fontaine

1 year ago
Duration 3:06
Manitoba's music scene lost a legend this week with the sudden and unexpected death of Vince Fontaine.

With files from Bryce Hoye, Cory Funk and Sheila North