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lives lived

Joseph Allen Elzby (Stacy Tom): Artist. Uncle. Anishinaabe. Board-game champ. Born Nov. 30, 1970, in Fort Frances, Ont.; died Sept. 8, 2019, in Owen Sound, Ont., from complications of a drowning accident; aged 48.

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Joseph Allen ElzbyCourtesy of family

Born to Phyllis Tom, a young Anishinaabekwe from Big Grassy River First Nation in Northern Ontario, Stacy Tom spent the first six months of his life with his mother before he was taken by Children’s Aid and placed in foster care. Stacy and Phyllis had been caught up in the Sixties Scoop, the government practice that began in the 1960s in which Indigenous children were removed from their families and adopted by non-Indigenous families in Canada, Europe and the United States. Phyllis would spend the next 38 years looking for her son until they were reunited in 2008. Stacy and Phyllis had a few short years together before she died in 2014.

Adopted in 1971, Stacy became Joseph Allen Elzby. He was raised in a small rural Ontario town by loving parents with two devoted sisters, and he was one of the only Indigenous children in his schools and community. Joe was an inquisitive, intelligent and exceptionally artistic child with the energy to match: In elementary school, he was once tied to a chair by a teacher because he wouldn’t sit still.

From a young age, he took every opportunity to create art, amazing his family and teachers with his ability. Living near the shores of Georgian Bay, Joe’s deep connection with the natural world continued throughout his life and was echoed in his art and photography. Joe’s artistic talent led him to study fine art at Fanshawe College, as well as the University of Toronto. Photography was one of his lifelong passions and he collected vintage cameras.

A conversation with Joe could lead just about anywhere. He was a voracious reader and his music collection spanned from classical to punk. He watched Jeopardy! to see how many answers he could get right, and it was impossible to win against Joe at any board game. Family board-games nights often ended in tears of laughter. His sense of humour and infectious laugh are unforgettable. Hearing Joe laugh, you couldn’t help but laugh yourself.

While his life held family, laughter and love, Joe lived a life of pain and adversity. He faced racism and discrimination, and spent many years reclaiming his Anishinaabe identity. Joe struggled with mental-health issues and addiction for most of his adult life. Navigating Ontario’s fragmented and under-resourced mental-health system was demoralizing for Joe and his family. Even the simplest supports were impossible to access. In early 2019, Joe received a disorder diagnosis that would have changed his life had he received it years ago.

In May, Joe drowned while photographing a Georgian Bay sunset. Paramedics resuscitated him and he spent the next four months in intensive care in two hospitals. While Joe experienced excellent care, a lack of compassion and understanding of anxiety disorders by some medical staff caused incredible trauma and stress for Joe, hindering his recovery.

Joe fought back against every setback, endured endless medical procedures and was learning how to walk and read again when he acquired multiple infections that he could not overcome.

Early on a sunny Sunday morning, he passed on to the spirit world surrounded by the love of his family. Chi miigwetch Joe, for all that you gave us.

Lisa Elzby Blenkinsop is Joe’s sister.

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