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Theodore Niizhotay Sabe Fontaine: Chief. Knowledge keeper. Educator. Family man. Born Sept. 7, 1941, in Sagkeeng Anishinaabe First Nation, Man.; died May 10, 2021, in Winnipeg, from cancer; aged 79.

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Theodore Niizhotay Fontaine.Ruth Bonneville

His clan was Turtle, standing for truth. His spirit name, Sabe, means to walk tall, to have integrity. But when people speak about Theodore Fontaine, they describe his kindness, beautiful smile and laughter – they’d felt the love of his niizhotay, his double heart.

Theodore described his early childhood as “bliss,” living on the Fort Alexander Indian Reserve in Manitoba. His home was warm and happy and Theodore’s life would be guided by childhood teachings about traditional ways, spirituality and culture.

Just after his seventh birthday, he was taken to the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School. He lived there for 10 years, enduring physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse. He was repeatedly locked in a dark closet for speaking Ojibwe. It took 40 years before he could sleep without a light on and had to manage a lifelong fear of confinement.

Theodore left high school to work and to play semi-pro hockey. In 1968, he was recruited to play and coach a hockey team for an international mining corporation in Pine Point, NWT. This was the turning point of his life. Instead of hockey, he earned a position leading a mineral exploration crew. Working with engineers and geologists, they’d gather predawn for enormous breakfasts, load more food into multi-wheeled vehicles and take off into the bush. Two years later, he returned to school, studying civil engineering technology.

Theodore worked in Edmonton and Ottawa in Indian Lands administration, then returned to Manitoba and was elected Chief of Sagkeeng First Nation from 1978 to 1980.

While working as Chief, his path crossed with Morgan Sizeland at Indian Affairs in Winnipeg. She was new in the department and he invited her to Sagkeeng to learn about conditions on reserves. Further opportunities to work together were the beginning of a 40-year love story.

Morgan admired Theodore’s brimmed hats and was often grateful he always carried mints, tissues and snacks since she never seemed to have anything in her pockets.

Love and pride for his daughter Jacqueline and her accomplishments were central to his core. He was also a playful grandfather to her sons, Sage and Hudson; they loved going out for “big breakfasts.” Jacqueline sought his guidance – as her father but also as an experienced First Nations leader in her work to support Native American students at Marquette University. Jacqueline and the entire family would learn to live with Theodore’s preference not to rush. He had to arrive everywhere early, especially airports.

Throughout his 30-year career, Theodore advocated for First Nations rights, languages, cultural and economic opportunities, including 12 years with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. He retired in 2000 but would always celebrate his identity by wearing red or orange with Anishinaabe patterns and symbolism.

At 66, he began writing about his residential school experiences. Recalling the abuse reignited flashbacks and nightmares. He’d phone his wife when memories overwhelmed him, not able to speak but needing to hear her voice. His 2010 book Broken Circle, The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, A Memoir became a bestseller.

In retirement, he also volunteered with Palliative Manitoba. One client, a former trucker, so missed the open road that Theodore drove him out along the highway to feel the rushing wind one last time.

Theodore never gave up his love of hockey. He spent 10 years playing with the Sagkeeng Oldtimers and won two world cups playing tournaments throughout Europe, the United States and Canada. In fact, Theodore was an athlete all his life. Five months after quadruple bypass surgery, he ran a half marathon. He tucked Morgan’s phone number in one pocket and his heart doctor’s in the other. In 2011, a failing hip forced him to start running behind a four-wheeled walker.

Theodore dedicated his final decade to education. He worked extensively with Facing History and Ourselves and met Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger. The two survivors bonded as brothers and shared their powerful experiences in unscripted dialogue at public events.

When speaking with children about Indian residential schools in age-appropriate ways he was struck by their empathy and fearless questioning. It gave him hope for the future.

Morgan Fontaine is Theodore’s wife.

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