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Harris Royston (Eric) Amit.Courtesy of family

Harris Royston (Eric) Amit: Humanitarian. Teacher. Gardener. Man of faith. Born Jan. 27, 1929, in Colombo, Sri Lanka; died Feb. 13, 2021, in Antigonish, N.S., of congestive heart failure; aged 92.

Eric was born into the stratified social order of Colombo in the 1930s. His father was Muslim, his mother an Anglican of British tea planter background. The challenges of growing up biracial and multiethnic were further compounded by the sudden death of his father when Eric was still young.

The family teetered on the edge of destitution as Eric’s newly widowed mother strove to establish herself as a self-employed seamstress. She reconnected with a childhood friend who had since married the wealthiest man in Ceylon and they were unexpectedly welcomed into the opulent household.

The almost-Dickensian ups and downs of Eric’s childhood made a deep impression. He understood that the obstacles faced by the poor are significant and deeply unfair. Eric devoted his professional life to addressing these injustices. He also understood that simple acts of kindness – caritas – could transform lives. This insight informed the gentle, generous nature of Eric’s relationships.

Sponsored by his new patron, Eric enrolled in university to study geography where he met and courted Amybelle Ambuldenyia. Family lore has it that his opening line was a hopeful “Would you like to borrow my pencil? It’s much sharper!”

Shortly after graduation, Amy and Eric married. Amy soon had her hands full with an expanding family while Eric built his career in the Ceylon Civil Service, providing leadership to land-settlement schemes to improve the lives of impoverished farmers. This work meant the family lived in rural areas, a time fondly remembered by his children who bounced around in the back of a Land Rover making impromptu stops by rivers and waterfalls for a swim and picnic.

By the late 1960s, Eric’s promotion meant the family returned to Colombo but political uncertainty and ethnic tensions were on the rise. In 1971, Eric and Amy immigrated to Canada with their four children, Minoli, Iromi, Hilary and Udeni.

Landing first in Newfoundland, Eric soon secured a job as a lecturer at the Coady International Institute in Antigonish, N.S. Before he could settle in, Eric was approached by the World Council of Churches to lead a huge reconstruction program in Bangladesh.

Amy and Eric quickly conferred and agreed on what had to be done. Within days, Eric was boarding a plane to Dhaka, leaving Amy and the children behind. In the years to follow, Eric was regularly ribbed for “abandoning” his family in the midst of a blizzard. In fact, the Amits were warmly welcomed to their new home in small-town Nova Scotia. When Eric returned, his family was fully versed in cooking lobster and similar local survival skills.

For the next 20 years, Eric was both a beloved teacher and a respected executive director at Coady, dividing his time between university lecture halls in Antigonish and training centres around the world. He brought rigour and insight to the teaching of development practice to a generation of community leaders.

Eric was an engaged if soft-hearted father and grandfather, leaving matters of domestic management and discipline to Amy. Each December, he applied his project-management skills to the planning and implementation of elaborate Christmas decorations and gatherings that were the talk of the neighbourhood.

Upon retirement, Eric received many honours for his lifetime of service, including the UN Association’s Global Citizen Award. Yet he found his greatest pleasures puttering around his impressive back garden, mobilizing grandchildren into work teams with characteristically modest incentives: a penny per worm imported, a nickel for each dandelion with roots exported!

When Amy became ill, Eric seldom left her side. With his failing eyesight and her dementia, they muddled through the challenges of daily life together. When Amy died in 2018, Eric moved into a nursing home where he welcomed family and visitors and flirted gently with the nurses. He was gracious and self-effacing to the end.

Anthony Scoggins is Eric’s colleague and Hilary Amit is Eric’s son.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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