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obituary

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

The Inuit people of Cape Dorset had a name for the white woman from 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 wholesale grocery business, selling Irish hams to the United States. In Wales, the Williams family – her mother’s parents – lived in a gracious home named Llewesog (think Downton Abbey), complete with servants, governesses, horses and a chauffeur to drive the family’s Rolls Royce.

In the years before the Second World War, young Dorothy enjoyed a childhood toggling between Wales and Canada, where her father, George Harley, hailed from. It had been a condition of her parents’ marriage that they return to Llewesog with their children every couple of years. “It wasn’t a childhood like anybody else’s,” her nephew Stuart Gunn said.

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 step out of this privileged milieu to devote most of her life to gathering and preserving the oral history of the Inuit people of the Far North. Motivated by a lively curiosity, she had a special interest in documentary reporting and historical photography that inspired her to write a half dozen books depicting traditional Inuit life and history from an Inuit point of view. She also produced numerous articles, film strips and exhibitions that opened readers’ eyes to the complexities of Inuit culture.

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

Ms. Eber wrote the first biography of an Inuk, the artist Pitseolak Ashoona (Pictures Out of My Life, published in 1971, reissued in 2003), and co-authored People From Our Side, the story of Peter Pitseolak, the first Inuk photographer. Peter had acquired a camera from a Catholic missionary in the 1940s and initially developed his photos in an igloo. Printed in both English and Inuktitut syllabics, Pictures Out of My Life was only the second book, after the Bible, ever published in the language of the Inuit. Ms. Eber did not speak it but took care to hire the best possible translators and always acknowledged their contribution.

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

In 2000, Ms. Eber was inducted into the Order of Canada in recognition of her work. She died aged 97 of pneumonia on Aug. 16 at Oakville Memorial Trafalgar Hospital. Her last years were spent at Oakville’s Sunrise Senior Living care home.

Dorothy Harley was born in Bromley, England, on March 18, 1925, the first of four children of George and Vera (née Williams) Harley. Her 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-minded Lady Waring in a military hospital, of whom he later wrote in a short memoir penned in the mock-serious style of P.G. Wodehouse: “Lady Waring … had a very beautiful niece, to whom I became 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 trans-Atlantic travel and the family remained first in Nova Scotia then in Toronto, where Dorothy studied at Havergal College for girls. She later attended Trinity College of the University of Toronto, graduating with a general arts BA in 1947. She then began to freelance as a journalist.

In 1958, in the Trinity College chapel, she married the dashing George Eber, who worked at the time with the leading modernist architectural firm Parkin in Toronto. The groom had had a narrow escape in 1950 from the oppressive Communist regime in his native Hungary, and before that, an even narrower escape jumping from a close-packed train on its way to Auschwitz. Though raised as a Lutheran, he had had a Jewish mother – she died of tuberculosis when he was two years old – and this made George a “Christian Jew” under the bizarre Nuremberg race laws adopted by Hungary in 1941.

Images of Justice, Ms. Eber's 1997 book about 16 key trials that illustrated the application of Canadian criminal law in the North, won a prize from the Canadian Authors’ Association for Canadian history.McGill-Queen's University Press

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

Meanwhile, enormous changes were going on in the Northwest Territories (today Nunavut) that came to Dorothy Eber’s attention. Printmaking began in Cape Dorset in 1957 as a way of introducing the Inuit to the cash economy since they could no longer live only by hunting and fishing. The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, based in Montreal, sent the artist James Houston north to teach printmaking, and in 1960 the first catalogued exhibition of Inuit prints took place at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Ms. Eber was smitten. She later wrote: “I was working as a reporter at the time and from that moment I longed to visit Cape Dorset and meet the artists who had emerged so unexpectedly out of the Canadian Arctic.”

In the days before regular commercial flights to the Far North, and no hotels or flush toilets, she waited eight years before her first northern trip. That trip lasted only three days but Ms. Eber returned in 1970 and stayed a month. There were many other trips, some financed by the Canada Council; her last journey to Cape Dorset took place when she was in her 80s. She always took a large jar of peanut butter with her in case she found nothing else to eat.

Recalled Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts, a gallery specializing in Inuit art in Toronto: “She was a gracious, lovely lady and an absolute pioneer in going to interview the Inuit. It was not a comfortable place. There was no phone in the settlement, only a satellite phone. To go to the lengths she went to to get the Inuit viewpoint – I don’t remember anyone else doing that back then. She went to great lengths to interview Pitseolak Ashoona.”

Ms. Eber’s work with the photographer Peter Pitseolak was revealing, too. Adds Ms. Feheley: “If not for her we would have no idea of the context of his 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 done with a tape recorder were a novelty in 1968 but they turned out to be a brilliant means 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 Up North, a history of the interactions between American and Scottish whalers in the 19th and early 20th century and the Inuit who worked closely with them. It’s a tragic history marked by alcohol and guns, disasters and shipwrecks.

Encounters on the Passage (2008) brought together orally transmitted stories covering 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 the riches of Cathay. Her research for the book, including interviews with Inuit sources, took 12 years.

Images of Justice, her 1997 book about 16 key trials that illustrated the application of Canadian criminal law in the North, won a prize from the Canadian Authors’ Association for Canadian history. All the defendants were Inuit and Ms. Eber made use of a series of Inuit carvings that the cases had inspired to tell their story.

Not all her books were about Inuit. Her first book, in 1969, The Computer Centre Party, dealt with the occupation and violent destruction by students of the computer centre at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). According to her friend Judith Adamson, “That book is the only complete record of what happened.”

A heavily illustrated later book, Genius at Work (1982) told the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s life and experiments in Nova Scotia after he invented the telephone.

George Eber, who had always supported her work, died of a heart attack in 1995, leaving Ms. Eber a widow at 70. Pinball Games, a lively memoir of his early life in Hungary, completed just before his death, appeared 15 years later. The couple had no children.

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