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Barrie mom hopes family's tragic story will help end drunk driving

'My five-year-old ... cries himself to sleep at night because he never got to meet his dad and everybody else did. He says it’s unfair … all I can say is that he’s right,' says Justine Ellis

Justine Ellis was only six weeks pregnant with her second child when her husband Stuart was killed by a drunk driver Nov. 13, 2017 while on his way to work.

Stuart Ellis was an electrician and was headed to work early on a Monday morning on that fateful day, she said, adding her husband kissed her goodbye as usual before heading to work.

“He was killed at 5:45 on a Monday morning, and I got out of bed at six that morning, so even as I got out of bed, he’d already been killed," Justine said. "I got my son ready, went to work and then got a frantic call from my mother-in-law saying the police had shown up at our door saying that Stuart had been killed in a crash.

“We obviously had no idea when we got up that morning that our lives were going to be completely flipped upside down.”

Their day in court

Newmarket resident Tyler Nielsen, who was 19 at the time of the deadly crash on Highway 48 near East Gwillimbury, faced numerous charges, but later pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death. In March 2019, he received a five-year prison sentence and an eight-year driving prohibition.  

While recounting the court proceedings, Ellis said Nielsen was under the influence of alcohol and a "cocktail" of three different drugs. He was also driving a stolen car on the wrong side of the road and was driving at 227 kilometres per hour when he hit Stuart's vehicle head-on near Davis Drive.

There was no evidence he was braking, said Ellis, adding Nielsen had also lost his driver's licence four months earlier after being charged with impaired driving and pleading guilty to a lesser charge of careless driving under the Highway Traffic Act.

Justine said Nielsen ultimately served two years and eight months in prison before first being released on day parole. Six months later, in May 2022, he was given full parole and released, she added. 

“It’s devastating. Stuart never gets to come home and (Nielsen) just gets to leave and go home to his life and his family like nothing ever happened," she said. "There is no justice to our system … it’s a legal system to me, not a justice system.

"He literally killed somebody and he’s going to be back to his regular life, whereas myself and my kids, we have a life sentence for a crime we did (not commit)."

Love at first sight

Stuart and Justine met in 2014 through an online dating service, and it was pretty much love at first sight, she admitted.

“When you know, you know. We were pretty much dating and engaged within six months of meeting each other. We were married in August 2015,” she said.

Their first son, Grayson, was born in September 2016.

Justine said her 20s were “a whole lot of life in a very short time." 

The couple’s second son, Coby, was born July 2018 — eight months after Stuart was killed.

“We had only just found out (we were expecting). We had known for 12 days before he was killed," Justine said. "We hadn’t even told any friends and only told our parents. I was calling people to not only tell them that Stuart was dead, but that I was pregnant with our second."

Looking back on things now, much of it is a blur, she admitted.

“I have been in survival mode these last six years, to be honest.”

Stuart was an incredible man who had a knack for making people laugh, she said.

“He was the life of the party and would take the clothes off his back to help somebody out. He didn’t drink himself, really, and that was the wildest part,” Justine said, recalling an online post her husband had shared about a week before he was killed.

“It said, ‘I’d rather wake up to a phone call from a friend asking for a ride than to wake up to a call saying one of my friends had been killed because of drinking. The fact he was killed in the way he was… “ she said before trailing off.

At the time of the crash, the couple was living in Beeton, about 40 minutes south of Barrie, with their first born son. Stuart was "beyond excited" to become a father for a second time, she noted. 

“It’s devastating every day that he never got to meet Coby,” she said.

Their youngest son is named in honour of his dad — Coby Stuart.

Moving forward

Justine, who's a nurse at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH), now lives in Barrie with her two sons, who are now seven and five years old, and her parents, both of whom are retired police officers.

“My mom … was one of the only female breathalyzer technicians with OPP,” she said, adding it was a cruel twist of fate that both her parents had spent their careers fighting impaired driving and then for their own son-in-law to be killed by one.

Justine acknowledges there is really no way to move on from the tragedy, but she and her family have managed to move forward over the past six years. 

“My kids are the only reason I get out of bed. They lost their dad and they don’t deserve to lose their mom, too,” she said.

She said she is in regular therapy and they often attend the Seasons Centre for Grieving Children in downtown Barrie as a family.

“My kids struggle everyday. My five-year-old is only just now processing his loss. He cries himself to sleep at night because he never got to meet his dad and everybody else did. He says it’s unfair … all I can say is that he’s right. I can’t fix it for them,” Justine said.

“My boys are incredible and I just move forward for them, because I know that’s what Stuart would want us to do. We just do our best to honour him every day.”

She also works with MADD Canada by sharing her family’s story in the hopes it could save even one life.

“There is no excuse (for impaired driving) in today’s world. Everybody should know how devastating it is," Justine said. "I think the statistic is four Canadians are killed every day in Canada. The fact that people have continued to die since Stuart has … it’s pretty sad.

“This is an epidemic in our society. Four Canadians a day?! That’s wild to me … and it will eventually be somebody you know or love. It is hard to share, of course, but I share to honour Stuart. If sharing our story helps even one person then it’s worth it, no matter how hard it is.”

Strong message 

Police across the province officially recently kicked off their Festive RIDE programs. 

Justine says it's important to always have a plan for getting home — any month of the year.

“There are so many options that it doesn’t make sense to me (to drive). It can happen at any time," she said. "It is something we have to be vigilant about, but especially at this time of year.

"Stuart was killed the day of the RIDE kick-off in 2017 in York Region. The holidays are hard without your loved ones, but even more so when they were taken too soon.”