Egan: Blind, disabled, sent away at 13, Joe found music on long journey home

Joe Oombash,74, died Sunday in Thunder Bay after several days in palliative care.

Joe Oombash was blind, mentally disabled and — for most of his life — effectively orphaned from his family on the Cat Lake First Nation, a fly-in community in Northern Ontario.

At age 13, he was sent to Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls, a massive complex that, at its peak, housed more than 2,600 handicapped souls, most needing round-the-clock care that meant abandoning their homes and loved ones. It was the 1960s way.

While he lacked sight and had a child-like demeanour, he possessed an extraordinary gift. With little or no instruction, the Ojibwa man could play any number of musical instruments — piano, guitar, accordion, mouth organ — mostly by ear, and had memorized hundreds of songs.

He spent 29 years in the eastern Ontario institution and was several times profiled in the Citizen, both for his musical gift and for his desire to return to the community of his childhood, about 180 kilometres from Sioux Lookout.

Oombash finally got his wish in 2016, at age 69. He was truly going home — Oombash, now 74, died Sunday in Thunder Bay after several days in palliative care.

“We did all kinds of crazy things together,” said Meagan Metcalfe, his primary counsellor while he lived at

Ottawa Foyers Partage, an 

Ottawa group home.

They took a hot-air balloon ride together, managed to settle into a canoe at a cottage, went on regular shopping excursions and enjoyed big dinners with her family. Joe’s trips to musically entertain folks at  seniors’ homes were a weekly fixture, she said, as were day programs at the Wabano Centre.

“The highlight of his week was doing things for other people.” He did it so often — roughly 25 years — that Joe received a mayor’s “city builder” award in 2015. At various times in his life, he was also a busker on the Sparks Street Mall or at the ByWard Market.

“He had a zest for life, always curious, a positive guy,” said Metcalfe. “He was funny. He would sometimes say inappropriate things out loud but it would engage everybody.”

 Joe Oombash could play any number of musical instruments — piano, guitar, accordion, mouth organ — mostly by ear, and had memorized hundreds of songs.

The Oombash family did not have an easy time of things. Two brothers, Charlie and Tom, were forcibly put into a residential school in 1956, only to run away and be found dead. His brother Stanley, an elder at Cat Lake, died just before Joe returned to the north.

“He was always smiling and happy,” said Jean Boulay, a friend and longtime “citizen advocate” through an Ottawa-based pairing program. “Most of the time he was in a positive mood and it was infectious.”

For years, they went on weekly excursions. Simple things like going out for a hardy breakfast made him happy, said Boulay.

Many of his friends in Ottawa worried about the move up north because Sioux Lookout is tiny by comparison (pop. 5,500), offers fewer programs for the disabled and his extended family was still some miles away.

But, even after more than 50 years away and an adoptive circle of caregivers in the capital, he had a yearning to return. “He talked a lot about being reunited with his family,” said Metcalfe, who actually helped him move north.

She said she spoke to Oombash every week after he moved and he even paid a visit to Ottawa a year later.

“I tried to advocate for him the best I could,” she said Monday, in tears at the turn of events. “I think that he was happy. He got what he wanted out of that desire to move back.”

 Joe Oombash during a going-away party at the Nepean Sportsplex before he moved back to Cat Lake/Sioux Lookout area where he was born.

(It has been a tough week at Foyers Partage. Longtime resident Justin Clark, nationally-recognized for his work in advancing the rights of the disabled, died last week.)

Boulay said Oombash was moved to Thunder Bay on Feb. 10 when he needed more care but stopped eating and drinking about a week before he died. Boulay is working with a funeral home in Thunder Bay to ensure that Joe is buried with his family at Cat Lake.

Oombash’s niece Joanne said family were in regular contact with him in Sioux Lookout but COVID-19 restrictions had made things complicated during the last few months.

Having lost track of Joe over the years, the family sent a letter in 2005 to an Ottawa native friendship centre inquiring about his whereabouts. It didn’t take long to connect the dots and Joe was delighted that he hadn’t been forgotten.

It took 10 years, but he finally made it home, now home for good.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email