It was billed as a charity fundraiser to support sick children while also bringing excitement to Manitoba ice fishers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With hundreds taking part, the 2021 Full Tilt Winter Walleye Tournament ended up being one of the biggest virtual ice fishing competitions in Canada, according to participants.
They were told all proceeds would go to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba — but it’s been 10 months, and the charity hasn’t received a donation from the event organizer.
The Winnipeg Police Service is looking into the matter, as disappointed and angry fishers raise questions.
The virtual tournament (in which fishers do not gather in person, but submit evidence of catches via an app) was organized by Christian Lillyman, who runs a home renovation company based in Ste. Anne, according to online profiles and people who know him.
Lillyman did not respond to messages from the Free Press seeking comment. The Facebook page for the event is no longer active.
CHFM confirmed it has not received a donation as of Friday, but officials have set up a meeting with the tournament organizer. An emailed statement stressed the foundation had no involvement in organizing or running the event.
"To date, the funds from this third-party event have not been turned over to the foundation," a spokeswoman said. "We are continuing to try to resolve this with the organizer."
Police are aware of the situation, said spokesman Const. Rob Carver.
"Investigators are assessing the information. No investigation has been initiated as of yet," he wrote in an email.
Entry fees for the tournament, held Feb. 20 to March 7, 2021, were $50 for adults and $25 for children 16 and under.
Participants and sponsors who spoke to the Free Press believed about 500 fishers signed up and had been expecting to eventually learn of the donation total.
Those interviewed said they had no doubts about the competition’s legitimacy or intent when they paid entry fees or agreed to donate prizes. They were happy to support a good cause and enjoy the sport at a time when in-person tournaments were on hold due to public health restrictions, they said.
The Full Tilt event used the FishDonkey app for its entrants. Organizers collect entry fees via the app, which takes a service fee. The platform has been used by thousands of tournaments in Canada and the United States.
FishDonkey co-founder Bonnie Amundson said the company, based in St. Paul, Minn., has been contacted by the Winnipeg police financial crimes unit.
She declined to say how many Manitobans had signed up for the 2021 event, nor how much money may have been collected by the organizer.
"We are in communication with the police and leaving it in their hands. If, in fact, it is true, we have also been duped and misled," said Amundson.
Manitoba businesses donated dozens of prizes, including cash, fishing gear and guided trips. It was unknown if every winner received his or her prize.
The Fishin’ Hole agreed to be a lead sponsor after being approached by Lillyman, said Todd Brega, who manages the Prairie retail chain’s Winnipeg store.
It donated $1,000 as a grand prize and an ice auger for an early bird draw.
He was disappointed to learn CHFM had not received a donation.
"We were told after the event it was the largest virtual tournament held in Canada," Brega said.
Shu-Mon Mok, who runs the Fishing Prairie and Shield blog, interviewed Lillyman for a post published just before the tournament started.
"All events help good causes, there’s a lot of money made from this and the fishing community is pretty good with that," Lillyman was quoted as saying. "It was quite heartwarming to see the community get together. None of this would be possible without the sponsors and people participating."
In an interview, Mok told the Free Press fishers began asking questions after an entrant claimed they didn’t receive their prize and was unable to contact Lillyman.
"There’s a lot of disappointment and anger," said Mok.
Some fishers and sponsors are worried the issue could hurt the community’s reputation. Jerry Esau, who entered the Full Tilt tournament, is part of a group planning a yet-to-be-finalized fundraiser to support CHFM.
"There’s a lot of anger. We want to make good and help the community heal," Esau said.
Selkirk-based Harvester Outdoors, which donated a guided river trip to the now-disputed event, is donating profits from its bait sales to CHFM.
"The outdoor industry is extremely charitable. They have a really good heart," said owner Sean Johnston.