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A man driven to live in a mansion

Poor beginnings couldn't stop Métis raised in a log cabin

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Western Manitoba motel-builder Irvin Goodon in front of the Boissevain inn he built in 2004. He makes sure his projects are high-quality.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Western Manitoba motel-builder Irvin Goodon in front of the Boissevain inn he built in 2004. He makes sure his projects are high-quality. Photo Store

BOISSEVAIN -- The reason Irvin Goodon builds hotels that are so surprisingly high-quality for their small-market towns is simple.

It's because people are waiting for him to fail, Goodon said. That's what drives him. He believes people are waiting for him to mess up because he's Métis, and probably for other reasons, too.

It's driven him all the way from the dirt-floor log cabin where he was raised in the backwoods of the Turtle Mountains. It drove him to become a multi-millionaire from a business making pole sheds.

"I just turn discrimination around. I said, 'Someday you're not going to laugh at me. I'm going to show you,' " Goodon said in an interview.

It's still driving the Métis businessman today at age 80. He opened the much-needed Canadian Wilderness Inn in Boissevain in 2004. He subsequently opened a hotel in Deloraine last year, and one last month in Killarney across from the spectacular new Shamrock Centre.

Most Winnipeggers don't know about Goodon, whose hotels provide a much-needed service in those communities, but they probably should.

His parents made a subsistence living in the woods in what was loosely a Métis community in southwestern Manitoba. At age six, his mother contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the Ninette Sanitorium. Goodon's father raised five children during her three-year absence. The youngest child at the time was three years old.

'I just turn discrimination around. I said, "Someday you're not going to laugh at me. I'm going to show you" '

-- businessman Irvin Goodon

At age 18, Irvin started cutting fence posts and peddling them to farmers. Then he bought an old sawmill and started cutting corral posts and lumber. In the 1960s, he started a feedlot-cleaning business he believes became one of the biggest in the country.

Then an opportunity arose to build an open-front cattle shed for a local farmer using a pole-shed design -- that is, using poles instead of conventional foundation pilings. "People were just starting to keep cattle outside, so they needed an open shed for a windbreak," Goodon said.

The pole sheds took off. By the 1970s, when Goodon Industries opened, he was Mr. Pole Shed. He started making cow sheds, machine sheds, potato sheds, riding arenas and more, all with the pole design. His company grew to 175 employees in a town of about 1,500 people.

In 2003, he built an ostentatious mansion on the south side of town overlooking Boissevain. It features an archway over the driveway decorated with more than 100 moose and elk antlers. (He's an avid hunter.) He had gone from mud floors -- they become hard-packed like linoleum --that his mother swept with a broom made of branches bundled together to a 7,000-square-foot mansion made of spruce logs imported from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., with hardwood floors throughout.

Not bad for a guy with a Grade 7 education.

On the way up, he met a young school teacher from a Mennonite family in Morden. Marge Fehr was teaching in Reston in 1962 when Goodon started showing up at the end of class offering to sweep the floors. His real intention soon became obvious.

Marge wasn't sold on him. Goodon was a drinker and partier in those days. Fehr came from teetotaler parents. The courtship dragged on for a few years. It eventually became pretty obvious to Goodon what he had to do. He quit drinking and he's never gone back to it. That was almost a half-century ago. The couple has been married 48 years. Both are born-again Christians and attend a Mennonite church.

It sounds almost like a fairy tale. Yet Goodon has been a controversial figure locally.

He admits "some people said I was too hard to get along with." This was when he was part of a committee of investors planning to build a hotel in Boissevain. After 18 months and no decision, Goodon became impatient and went ahead and built the Wilderness Inn himself. "I'm used to, when I want to do something, I just do it," he said.

He's got an ego. He's penned and self-published two books about himself, with Marge's help. One is a memoir and one is about his hunting exploits. They are sold at his hotels. He also built the Irvin Goodon Intentional Wildlife Museum containing his collection of mounted wildlife, including others purchased to augment the museum. He has since donated the collection to the town. He also built a replica of the log cabin he grew up in beside the museum.

A lot of the controversy around Goodon stems from the acrimonious split with his former partner, Brian Tyerman. In the late 1990s, Goodon was feeling burned out, so he sold half his shares -- a quarter of the company--and passed on the other half -- a quarter of the company -- to his only son, Will.

The new ownership was now comprised of four partners. Then the three partners joined forces and exercised what's called a "shotgun clause" in the ownership arrangement.

The shotgun clause allows a partner to buy out another partner. First, you make a bid. The targeted partner then has to either sell to you or buy you out. Will didn't want to be bought out but the price tag to buy out the other three partners was too steep. The Goodon family is now out of the business.

Most people in town feel the partners did what they had to do for the good of the company. The consensus is Will just wasn't a good fit for the position. But Goodon feels his former associates should have been patient and helped train his son more.

The move caused "huge acrimony," as one area resident put it. In an interview, Goodon described the ownership move as "a hostile takeover." In his self-published book, Climbing One Pole At A Time, the title of the chapter on the incident says it all: The Biggest Mistake of My Life. Although the incident is a decade old now, those things don't go away easily in a small town.

It should be noted Will Goodon is the Métis man who, in 2004, prior to being bought out from Goodon Industries, shot a ringneck duck without a hunting licence, then walked into the Manitoba Conservation office and dared officers to charge him. The charge led to a legal battle, with the justice system eventually ruling Métis people have the same hunting rights as aboriginals.

Irvin Goodon wasn't finished. He reinvented himself, this time with hotels. Even now, there are detractors who won't give him credit for his success. One detractor said Goodon only took advantage of the oil boom in the area. That's not true. The Sinclair oilfield that launched the boom was still almost a year away from being discovered and fracking was still in its nascent stages when Goodon opened the Canadian Wilderness Inn.

Goodon maintains his Boissevain hotel would have succeeded without the oil boom, but with the oil boom, he has already expanded it twice. It now has 50 rooms. Boissevain is not in the oilpatch, but it's close enough -- about a half-hour drive away. Multinational oilfield service company Haliburton will book 30 rooms at a time in blocks of up to nine months there, although that business cooled off this year.

Goodon admitted he built the hotel in Deloraine because it's in the oilpatch, but Killarney is not. That makes at least three major hotels the oil boom has launched in southwestern Manitoba: Goodon's Deloraine hotel, an Inns and Suites in Melita and a Comfort Inn in Virden.

"I don't do things half-assed. I don't want to be known for that," Goodon said, maintaining his two new hotels are the same quality as the one in Boissevain.

Part of that is he still remembers when Métis people were made fun of in the community. "I just wanted it to be so they wouldn't continue to laugh at me," he said. In 2004, Goodon was flown to a gala in Toronto to become the first Métis inducted into the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame.

"I don't know where you are in your spiritual life," Goodon said, "but I believe that God had a hand in everything in my whole life. You look at where I came from -- the Lord has blessed any enterprise I've gone into."

Of course, he continued, "You can't sit back and say, 'Well, Lord, go to work.' I did the work, the Lord made the increase."

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 A11

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