In December 2015, Elizabeth Shirt lost her husband Tony to cancer. Today she looks back at the legacy of her husband, a loving father and member of the Saddle Lake First Nations community.
“Tony had a loud laugh that just echoed through the room. He was always laughing at his own jokes and everybody else’s. And he had this ability where he made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. He was magnetic. He drew people in and they wanted to be a part of his circle,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth met Tony Shirt through work. “He worked for Peace Hills Trust, owned by Samson Cree Nation and I worked in Energy, Climate Change and Indigenous Relations. We became friends and eventually fell in love.”
Tony and Elizabeth got married in August 2014 and together they co-parented his two young sons, along with the boys’ biological mother and stepdad. In December of that year, soon after experiencing some abdominal pain, he was diagnosed with a rare form of colon cancer.
“The kind of cancer Tony had was of the endocrine system. It was quite rare and incurable. Without treatment, he was looking at three months. With treatment, maybe eight months to a year. So we started treatment right away at the Cross.”
With treatment, Tony was able to have a year of incredible life – more moments with his loved ones. Elizabeth is grateful for the phenomenal care they received from the doctors, nurses, and volunteers at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.
Tony was born and raised in Saddle Lake Cree Nation. His Indigenous roots and culture played a huge part in how he dealt and coped with his diagnosis. Along with pursuing all avenues of treatment at the Cross Cancer Institute, he also attended sweats, smudges and prayers. “We went down to Arizona and visited a Navajo medicine man. It was a really meaningful part of Tony’s cancer journey, making that trip was almost a pilgrimage. It gave Tony a lot of strength to know that there were people from his culture and beyond who were fighting for him.”
“He was gifted a Cree name while he was battling cancer. The name he was given translates to Day Star. As night changes into the morning, the last star you can see is Venus and that’s the day star. In the last few months of Tony’s life when he was the sickest, November and December, that’s when the morning star was the brightest. I can remember seeing it. He would wake up really early because he couldn’t sleep well and he’d go sit outside. He would burn sweet grass, pray and talk to the creator. Now when I see the star, I know it’s him watching over us.”
Tony was an important member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation community. He was the chair of Saddle Lake’s Onihcikiskowapowin Business Trust and a prominent figure in the aboriginal financial and banking community. He was also a baseball and a volleyball coach and more. In October, Elizabeth decided it was time to acknowledge all the contributions he made. “He was lots of things to a lot of people. When he got sick and had to step down from some of those roles, it felt kind of unfair to me that those things weren’t recognized. So I threw him a big party!”
About two hundred of Tony’s friends, family and well-wishers came. It was a night of festivity, where they celebrated his life and the impact he made. “His family was front and center. All his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews — everybody came and spoke. Members from the Northern Cree drum group played an honor song for him. It was just an amazing night. It acknowledged everything Tony’s done and all the contributions he has made. And he had gotten to be a part of that. He got to be there to hear people, to understand how much he has contributed to so many people’s lives,” says Elizabeth.
While supporting Tony through his cancer journey, Elizabeth learned more about Tony and his First Nations culture. Mainly, the importance of supporting your family and loved ones. She watched as his family, whether related or not, took care of him and supported him in times of need. She attributed his First Nations upbringing to the kind of father he was to his five children – the two boys at home and his three grown children.
“The kind of father Tony was comes in a big way from his First Nations upbringing. In health and sickness, his kids and family were absolutely number one to him. He was an amazing dad and he made sure that his kids and his granddaughter were taken care of. And I believe that’s how he was raised, and that’s what his culture teaches.”
“His oldest daughter, Ashley was engaged during the year he was sick. He went into the hospital the week before her wedding. All he wanted to do was to be at that wedding. When he first went into the hospital, he believed that if he just got well enough for the wedding it would be fine. But when we went in, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t coming out. So we got our iPad, face-timed the wedding and watched the ceremony. Right after, Ashley and her new husband came to the hospital to see us. That was the night of December 20th and early in the morning on the 21st is when he passed away.”
You never know whose life you could change simply by talking about your own, share your story today.