Fontaine, Phil

Degree conferred: Doctor of Laws (LL.D.)

Orator: Mason, Gordon

to be Doctor of Laws

If some prominent Canadians have first-name recognition, others have face recognition. One such is our next honoree, Phil Fontaine.

Born in Manitoba as a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation, Phil Fontaine showed early signs of a keen interest in social and political causes. He was a youth activist with the Canadian Indian Youth Council and a member of the Company of Young Canadians. He graduated from the University of Manitoba with a bachelor of arts degree in political studies, and was elected Chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation at the age of just 28. There followed a succession of increasing responsible positions, first as Manitoba regional representative for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), then as Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in which capacity he served for three terms. In 1997 he was elected for a three-year term as National Chief of the AFN and although he was defeated in 2000, he served two more terms from 2003 to 2009 for an unprecedented nine years as National Chief. In the years between his first two terms he was chief commissioner of the Land Claims Commission.

His career is distinguished not just by positions held but by results achieved. His experiences as a student of the residential school system for 10 years was undoubtedly a defining factor in many of his subsequent actions. For example, one of his first acts as chief of his own community, was to establish the first Indian controlled education system in Canada. He also created a locally operated child and family services agency and the first on-reserve alcohol and addictions treatment centre in the country.

Recognizing that self-determination and treaty land rights were essential to improving the lives of native peoples, as Grand Chief in Manitoba he negotiated the first comprehensive self-government plan as well as employment equity agreements leading to thousands of job opportunities for First Nations citizens. As National Chief, one of his key accomplishments was the successful resolution of claims arising from the 150-year-old residential school tragedy, which provided over $5 billion in individual compensation. The agreement also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which held its first public session in Winnipeg earlier this year, and furthermore led to the historic apology from the Government of Canada. More recently Mr. Fontaine met with Pope Benedict to receive a further apology from the Roman Catholic Church.

Those who have worked with Phil Fontaine attribute much of his success to his cooperative approach to negotiations. Like Nelson Mandela and a very few others, he reacted to racism and injustice, not with confrontation, but with a deliberate, firm and positive approach, one that, in the words of former Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Andy Scott was "spiritually traditional but practically modern". Recognizing that old wrongs must be addressed but also that economic development and education are keys to success, he has provided a brighter future for his people and indeed for all Canadians. He is a member of the Order of Manitoba and has received numerous honorary degrees: the University of New Brunswick is pleased to add another.

Citation written and delivered by Gordon Mason

From: Honoris Causa - UA Case 70, Box 4

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