words :: Ned Morgan.
Joe Elzby, who died last year at the age of 48, wasn’t born Joe Elzby. At his funeral I discovered he was born Stacy Tom. He was Stacy Tom for as long as he lived with his mother Phyllis Tom of Big Grassy River First Nation in northwestern Ontario: about six months.
Like most children of the Sixties Scoop—when the Canadian government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in child welfare systems in Canada, the U.S. and Europe—Stacy received a new name with his new family. (Joe’s adoptive parents and sisters loved him and supported him throughout his life. The Scoop tore apart Indigenous families but in Joe’s case at least, he landed with good people.) Attending elementary school with him, it never entered my mind that he was different from any of my other friends. His intelligence, aptitude for drawing and penchant for absurd humour set him apart.
In high school, I recall Joe and another friend recording themselves uttering nonsense into a cassette recorder and playing the results at random moments. One day they targeted my Grade 10 drama class. They snuck up to the door of our classroom, opened it slightly and slid the recorder into the room. For a silent moment everyone stared at the machine, out of which Joe’s voice suddenly shouted “Get Down!” (He didn’t mean “Duck!”. When spoken with a certain cadence, “Get down” in its mid-eighties usage meant, among other things, to dance in an unrestrained or ridiculous manner.) Just those two words. Out in the hall, we heard suppressed laughter and receding footfalls.
Not long after this, Joe quit high school and moved away to live in several different cities, including London and Toronto, staying with various friends or in youth hostels. I lost track of him for more than 20 years. After I left the city and moved back to my hometown, I began to see him around; he had moved back, too. We were in our late thirties and back where we’d started. Or in Joe’s case, where the Sixties Scoop had landed him.
Once in the fall I was cycling along a forested section of the Georgian Trail when I saw him picking sumac berries and stowing them in his backpack, his bike propped against a wooden bench. I stopped.
He told me how to make sumac tea from the conical, burgundy fruit. Then we talked about bands we were listening to. Joe had kept his hair, and his face was still handsome but faintly pockmarked—the intervening years had left a mark. I found out later he had led an unsettled life, fighting addiction and untreated mental illness. He drifted through several jobs but couldn’t settle on a career. He was a talented graphic artist and photographer but never felt satisfied with the final outcome of his work.
I believe Joe felt something of a stranger in two worlds—the rural Ontario where he grew up, and his birthplace and ancestral home of Big Grassy First Nation. In 2008 Joe reconnected with and visited his birth mother, who lived in Winnipeg. He couldn’t visit her often, as travelling was increasingly difficult for him and he suffered panic attacks or acute anxiety, often while in a vehicle. When Phyllis Tom died aged 61 in 2014, Joe was devastated not just over the loss but because he’d only just begun to know his mother.
Many of us fumble through our days seeking some sort of meaning in the fog, struggling to find compassion in a world that often seems to reward its opposite. Joe struggled more than most.
Last spring, he lost his balance and fell off a concrete pier into Owen Sound harbour while shooting photos at dusk. He nearly drowned but paramedics revived him and he spent several months in hospital, in and out of consciousness. He never fully recovered and in September 2019 he succumbed to multiple infections. I’d lost touch with him at that point and never knew he was in hospital.
In our last conversation at an art exhibition a few years before his death, we talked about the heavy toll resource exploitation and urbanization exacts on the natural world—and on us. Joe’s people, the Anishinaabe, and all other First Nations, have come to understand this toll better than anyone. Whenever I spoke to Joe on these topics I felt an awkward need to apologize for the actions of “my” people—namely, my British ancestors for settling on land the British Crown swindled away from his ancestors. But Joe never asked for my apology and never spoke a word to me that sounded bitter or aggrieved.
One of Joe’s friends who spoke at the funeral told mourners that Joe’s Ojibwe spirit name, given to him while he lay in a hospital bed, is Zaagaabiisin. In rough translation, it means “water washing over rock.” On a canoe trip last summer I thought of Joe when I looked out over a lake at the Canadian Shield rocks awash just above the calm surface. On a hike last week I thought of Joe when I passed a spring flowing over Niagara Escarpment rocks near the trail.
The person I knew as Joe Elzby answered to that name for just under 48 years. Before that, he was Stacy Tom. Now he’s Zaagaabiisin.
Originally published in ML Blue Mountains, Fall 2020 issue. With thanks to Tanya Knight.