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Millionaires safe at home

The Fontaines take care of Sagkeeng, and vice versa

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/12/2009 (2780 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SAGKEENG FIRST NATION - Drive into any small town and you can expect second looks and cool, measuring glances.  Drive into Sagkeeng and you'll get open appraisal salted with suspicion.

That's what $50 million can do to a place.


The people of Sagkeeng have become media savvy. They were already tightknit the way places are where everyone has one of only a dozen last names and everyone seems to be some kind of cousin to everyone else.

They grew even tighter, more protective, after Kirby and Marie Fontaine -- two of the nicest people you ever met, according to many here -- won the lottery.

It's now a place where a chat with a young woman in a laundromat ends with her request for anonymity. A visit to the elementary school results in harsh words from a teacher who demands to know why no one was interested in the school lunch program before now.

Mostly, reserve residents want to protect the Fontaines' privacy.

They like these people and they like what they're doing with some of their windfall.

"ö "ö "ö

A handful of men are clearing and burning brush on the side of Sagkeeng's winding road. It's tough work, made harder by the 37-below temperature.

This is one of Kirby Fontaine's make-work projects.

"He wants to beautify the community," says elementary school principal Rick Fewchuk. To that end, Fontaine hired a number of local men, offered them $100 a day and put them to work.

Mark Bunn, a second cousin of Marie Fontaine's, thought he was going to have to head to Dryden to find work.

"Instead of leaving the reserve, you got this," says Bunn, his breath huffing out in clouds.

Jed Swampy, the brother of the guy who sold Marie Fontaine the winning ticket, is crouched in the snow, setting fire to a pile of wood and brush.

"He's just like everyone else," says Swampy. "He's just a regular guy."

Chainsaws whine and smoke fills the air. The job foreman declines a conversation.

"No comment," he says firmly.

"ö "ö "ö

Over at the Fontaines' trailer, a pair of plumbers are loading their battered pickup. The mobile home's pipes froze and burst overnight. Not even multimillionaires are immune to the effects of a Canadian winter.

There's a Dodge Ventura parked across the top of the driveway.

As the plumbers leave, a husky man comes hot-footing across the road. He's security, although he denies it.

He's a friend, he says, and he's looking out for them. He's there to receive the cards and notes people drop off.

Are these well-wishers asking for money?

"I don't open them," he says.

Are the Fontaines home?

He thinks a minute.

"Toronto," he says. "They're in Toronto."

He may or may not be telling the truth. You'd have to get through him to find out for yourself.

Naturally he has no comment.

"ö "ö "ö

There have been a few splurges, of course. Many driveways here are sporting new trucks. That's the easiest way to find a relative or friend of the family on the reserve.

The Fontaines' daughter got a fully loaded 2010 Camaro for her 18th birthday. A couple of university students who helped Kirby out got trucks.

Rumour is they spent $780,000 at one Winnipeg car dealership.

Marie is apparently buying a number of ready-to-move houses and having them shipped to the reserve. Housing here is as deplorable as on most reserves. There are tidy trailers, like the Fontaines'. Many homes are decked out with inflatable Santas and strings of lights. But there are also ramshackle houses the size of fishing shacks.

The people given new homes will be living in castles compared to what they have now.

"ö "ö "ö

Kirby Fontaine was sitting in Rick Fewchuk's office earlier this week. The men have known each other for years. Marie used to clean for Fewchuk; Kirby would come along and help.

"The Fontaines are very easy-going, fun-loving people," Fewchuk says. "You couldn't meet two nicer people, especially Kirby."

Their largesse has helped the three local schools. The couple has taken on the costs of the hot lunch and breakfast programs. For Fewchuk, that means large savings, budget money he can put back into the school.

It also means children aren't trying to learn while their tummies rumble.

"It's cut down on discipline problems. They're not hungry. They can learn.

"A lot of them, they just didn't have time to eat before school. Now that's the first thing they do here."

The Fontaines are slowly making changes in Sagkeeng, doling out money with the measured caution of long-time philanthropists.

Kirby is organizing a hockey tournament this March. It will honour his late father. Kirby can't play any more, not since the stroke last year that left him walking with a cane. His old friends and teammates will be wearing the best gear for the Melvin Fontaine memorial tournament.

"They're sincere," says Fewchuk. "Kirby said, 'Rick, I'm not changing.' I know he's going to stay on the reserve."

"ö "ö "ö

It all started at the Broadlands Mall in Pine Falls. That's where Marie Fontaine bought her winning ticket.

In the foolish optimism of gamblers everywhere, people have been flocking to the convenience store, betting another miracle can take place.

Mall co-owner Laurie Wilson says she is selling between 30 and 40 per cent more tickets since the Fontaines won.

She is reluctant to talk about whether or not the couple or their extended family are still buying tickets.

They need their privacy, she says.

In other words, no comment. A couple of the nicest people you're ever going to meet are under the protection of the people of this community.

And in return, the Fontaines are taking care of many of them.




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