Gifted author collected and preserved Inuit oral history

Dorothy Harley Eber.Courtesy of the family / Courtesy of the family

The Inuit of Cape Dorset had a name for the white woman of Montreal: Apirsuqti, “she who asks questions”.

Dorothy Harley, later known by her married name, Eber, was born into a large family that had prospered in the grocery wholesale business, selling Irish hams in the United States. In Wales, the Williams family – her mother’s parents – lived in a gracious house named Llewesog (think Downton Abbey), with servants, governesses, horses and a chauffeur to drive the family’s Rolls Royce.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, young Dorothy lived a childhood oscillating between Wales and Canada, where her father, George Harley, was from. It was a condition of her parents’ marriage that they return to Llewesog with their children every two years. “It was a childhood like no other,” said his nephew Stuart Gunn.

Ms. Eber wrote the first biography of an Inuk, artist Pitseolak Ashoona, in 1971.Courtesy of the family

No one could have guessed that Ms. Eber would come out of this privileged background to devote most of her life to collecting and preserving the oral history of the Inuit people of the Far North. Driven by a keen curiosity, she had a particular interest in documentary reporting and historical photography which inspired her to write half a dozen books depicting traditional Inuit life and history from an Inuit perspective. She has also produced numerous articles, filmstrips and exhibits that have opened readers’ eyes to the complexities of Inuit culture.

She began recording the memories of elders in the early 1970s, when they still remembered living as nomadic hunter-gatherers before the federal government relocated them to permanent settlements with schools and postings. medical care.

Ms. Eber wrote the first biography of an Inuk, artist Pitseolak Ashoona (Pictures of my lifepublished in 1971, reissued in 2003), and co-author The people on our side, the story of Peter Pitseolak, the first Inuk photographer. Peter had acquired a camera from a Catholic missionary in the 1940s and had first developed his pictures in an igloo. Printed in English and Inuktitut syllabics, Pictures of my life was only the second book, after the Bible, ever published in the Inuit language. Mrs. Eber did not speak it but took care to hire the best possible translators and always acknowledged their contribution.

“Dorothy’s great skill was getting people to talk to her easily. She was a good journalist,” commented her Montreal friend Judith Adamson, herself a retired academic and literary biographer. “Then she learned to extend that gift to book length. Dorothy’s Inuit books made her reputation.

In 2000, Ms. Eber was inducted into the Order of Canada in recognition of her work. She died at the age of 97 of pneumonia on August 16 at Oakville Memorial Trafalgar Hospital. His final years were spent at the Sunrise Senior Living nursing home in Oakville.

Dorothy Harley was born in Bromley, England on March 18, 1925, the first of four children to George and Vera (née Williams) Harley. His father was from Nova Scotia and fought in France as a machine gunner in the First World War. While on leave in England he met the charitable Lady Waring in a military hospital, of whom he later wrote in a short memoir written in the mock-serious style of PG Wodehouse: “Lady Waring…had a very beautiful niece, to whom I have become warmly attached and to whom I am still warmly attached, and married.

George Harley became a stockbroker who managed the Canadian investments of his wife’s family and their wealthy friends. The Second World War put an end to transatlantic travel and the family remained first in Nova Scotia and then in Toronto, where Dorothy studied at Havergal College for girls. She then attended Trinity College, University of Toronto, where she graduated with a Bachelor of General Arts in 1947. She then began freelance work as a journalist.

In 1958, in the chapel of Trinity College, she married the dashing George Eber, who at the time was working with the leading modernist architectural firm Parkin in Toronto. The groom had narrowly escaped in 1950 from the oppressive communist regime in his native Hungary, and before that an even narrower escape by jumping off a crowded train en route to Auschwitz. Although he was raised as a Lutheran, he had a Jewish mother – she died of tuberculosis aged two – and this made George a “Christian Jew” under the bizarre Nuremberg racial laws. adopted by Hungary in 1941.

Images of Justice, Ms. Eber’s 1997 book of 16 key trials illustrating the application of Canadian criminal law in the North, won an award from the Canadian Authors’ Association for Canadian History.McGill-Queen’s University Press

The couple moved to Montreal, where Mr. Eber started his own architecture firm, which grew to 50 employees. For Expo 67 in Montreal, he worked on the pavilions of 11 participating countries.

Meanwhile, tremendous changes were taking place in the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut) that caught Dorothy Eber’s attention. Carving began in Cape Dorset in 1957 as a means of introducing the Inuit to the cash economy since they could no longer live by hunting and fishing alone. The Montreal-based Canadian Guild of Crafts sent artist James Houston north to teach printmaking, and in 1960 the first cataloged exhibition of Inuit prints was held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Ms. Eber was hit. She would later write: “I was working as a journalist at the time and from that moment I wanted to visit Cape Dorset and meet the artists who had emerged so unexpectedly from the Canadian Arctic.

In the days before regular commercial flights to the Far North, and without hotels or flush toilets, she waited eight years before her first trip to the North. This trip only lasted three days, but Mrs. Eber returned in 1970 and stayed for a month. There were many other trips, some funded by the Canada Council for the Arts; her last trip to Cape Dorset was when she was 80 years old. She always carried a big jar of peanut butter with her in case she couldn’t find anything else to eat.

Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts, a gallery specializing in Inuit art in Toronto, recalls, “She was a kind, charming woman and an absolute pioneer in going out and interviewing Inuit. It was not a comfortable place. There was no telephone in the colony, only a satellite telephone. Go all the way to get the Inuit perspective – I don’t remember anyone else doing that at the time. She went to great lengths to interview Pitseolak Ashoona.

Ms. Eber’s work with photographer Peter Pitseolak was also telling. Adds Ms Feheley: “Without her, we would have no idea of ​​the context of her life.”

In the 1960s, her husband, George, had given her one of the newly available compact tape recorders, but she had not yet used it when she met Pitseolak Ashoona. Oral biographies made with a tape recorder were a novelty in 1968 but they proved to be a brilliant way of capturing a subject’s personality and “the vitality of the vernacular” as Ms. Eber put it.

In 1989 she wrote When the whalers were in the North, a story of the interactions between 19th and early 20th century American and Scottish whalers and the Inuit who worked closely with them. It is a tragic story marked by alcohol and guns, disasters and shipwrecks.

Encounters on the Passage (2008) collected orally transmitted stories spanning 400 years of Arctic exploration by Martin Frobisher, Edward Parry, John Ross, John Franklin and Roald Amundsen, all in search of a Northwest Passage to riches from Cathay. Her research for the book, including interviews with Inuit sources, spanned 12 years.

justice pictures, his 1997 book on 16 key trials illustrating the application of Canadian criminal law in the North won an award from the Canadian Authors’ Association for Canadian history. All of the defendants were Inuit, and Ms. Eber used a series of case-inspired Inuit carvings to tell their story.

Not all of his books were about the Inuit. His first book, in 1969, The computer center party, deals with the occupation and violent destruction by students of the Computer Center at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). According to her friend Judith Adamson, “This book is the only complete account of what happened.”

A heavily illustrated later book, genius at work (1982) tells the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s life and experiences in Nova Scotia after the invention of the telephone.

George Eber, who had always supported her work, died of a heart attack in 1995, leaving Mrs Eber a widow at 70. pinball games, a living memoirs of his youth in Hungary, completed just before his death, appeared 15 years later. The couple had no children.

Predeceased by her three younger siblings, Mrs. Eber leaves her nieces Anne Harley, Judy Gunn Saunders, Susan Gunn, Enid Gunn Mackle, and nephews Stuart Gunn and John Harley, and their children.

Lola R. McClure