Ontario retirement residence pioneer Fred Lafontaine turned 100 earlier this month. Photo courtesy Scarborough Retirement Residence

No turning back for Fred Lafontaine

By  REBECCA DARWENT. Catholic Register Special
  • October 28, 2023

When Fred Lafontaine moved to Toronto in 1945, he had $19 in his pocket and was in search of a job. A builder by trade, he had left his family’s farm in La Sarre, Que., which had just been enveloped by more than a foot of snow the night before.

“I came to Toronto to learn English so I could go back (home) and do business in French and English,” he said. “But I saw the sunshine, flowers, trees… It kept me. I decided to stay and do my career here.”

And stay he did. Nearly 15 years after his arrival in Toronto, Lafontaine purchased an old hotel and opened Rosebank Nursing Home near Pickering to the east of Toronto. The residence was unique in its time, one of Ontario’s original “Ma and Pa” senior care homes. It offered private living for residents who paid five dollars a day, with 44 beds available. At the time there were no government regulations and most housed multiple residents per room.

He went down to City Hall and received a licence for a mere six dollars. This home would be one of 30 that Lafontaine helped establish over the decades, from Chatham to Ottawa, now owned and operated by Community Lifecare Inc. The family today still runs the Scarborough Retirement Residence in east Toronto.

Lafontaine celebrated his 100th birthday on Oct. 6 and hasn’t slowed down. The centenarian still shows up at the Scarborough residence a couple times a month to visit the residents and assist with their programs. He even has an official title: Chief Elder Officer.

“I really love the residents,” he said. “I spend a lot of time sitting on the edge of their beds, listening to stories of their lives. Everybody has a story to tell and I love hearing those stories.”

The eldest of his six children, Marie-Josee, is at the helm of daily operations at the Scarborough home. She believes her father has built a legacy over the decades of his work and care for others, nodding to his pure intention and faith-driven motivation.

“He cared for tens of thousands of people. And now he’s still doing it at 100,” Marie-Josee said. “If I have someone who’s dying, he goes and holds their hand and talks to them. He also likes to dispense advice.”

Lafontaine’s wife, Marie Paule, was also instrumental in the family business operations. Marie Paule was responsible for the administration and finances, but Lafontaine also recalls that the first thing she did was put up the drapes and decorations. The two were married for 65 years before she passed away in 2020.

“We made a good team,” said Lafontaine.

Born and raised a Roman Catholic, Lafontaine still professes the faith that he grew up practising as a young child. His parents emphasized the importance of attending Sunday Mass and frequenting Confession. His faith was a constant for him, contributing to his work and in everything he did and prioritizing care for others. In having cared for his own parents in their later years, he recalls only hiring staff members who he specifically would have chosen to care for his own parents.

“Looking at them, I (would) ask, ‘Would I leave my mother with that person?’ If the answer was ‘Maybe,’ I would not hire them,” he said. “I didn’t know how to hire personnel… (That) was part of our success, to hire the right people.”

Lafontaine keeps busy to this day outside the family business. Each day, Lafontaine spends several hours woodturning, creating wooden tops that he has given to charities, bazaars, schools and hospitals. He said he has made thousands over the years. He keeps a similar routine each day of reading the newspaper, spending several hours in the woodturning studio and very rarely drinking a glass of wine. As for any secrets to living a long life, Lafontaine suggested retirees find hobbies to keep them busy, encourages dedicating oneself to helping others and not smoking.

“I feel good, I thank God for my good health,” he said.

Several years ago, when his wife was still alive, they travelled with a few of their children to the land where Lafontaine was born and raised. There is a retirement residence on the land where his family farm had once stood. While Lafontaine wasn’t responsible for building that one, he had at one point considered the idea, and Marie-Josee saw how it has come full circle.

“I think providence really played its hand in the entire life cycle of my father, and he was meant to do what he did.”

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