Son, big smiler, loyal friend, proud Inuk. Born on June 12, 1995, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut; died on Dec. 30, 2014, in Ottawa, of sudden cardiac arrhythmia, aged 19.
My wife and I will never forget meeting Eric for the first time – or how quickly we fell in love with the little boy and his remarkable smile. Laurie and I have worked in Nunavut for most of our careers (she as in-house counsel for the land-claims organization, I as a writer for publications and cultural projects focused on Inuit heritage), and at the time we were living in his home town, Cambridge Bay.
Eric was just over two years old when social services staff brought him to our house. He spent most of the next four years in our foster care and we adopted him, our only child, when he was 6. His smile endured as he grew up, becoming his hallmark. As one of his hockey coaches said, "The only thing faster than his feet was his smile."
Eric was passionate about hockey. His skill at the game and his vital role on a team helped boost his self-esteem. From the age of 9, after we moved "south," his Ottawa teammates offered acceptance and admiration that he often found missing elsewhere.
He was admirably calm under pressure. I saw it countless times: at sea on a sailboat, face-to-face with a grizzly in the barren lands, and on the ice. As an older teenager, his hockey team made it to Ottawa's city championship final and played overtime to a tie; the game was to be decided by a shoot out and Eric went immediately to his coach, saying, "Let me shoot first. I will score, and it will take the pressure off the shooters after me." He did score, but the team lost.
Eric loved to travel. He sailed to Venezuela twice (and lost his first tooth at sea the first time). When he was 6, we took him from Nunavut to Japan, where he ushered Princess Takamado around an exhibition of northern art (which I had a hand in organizing). Through family trips and youth-abroad programs, he visited a dozen countries in Europe. Best of all, for him and for us, we did several long canoe trips together in the Arctic. By the time he was 12, he had paddled on the Thelon, Clarke, Elk, Back, Consul and Simpson, some of the great rivers of the Barrens. He was proud to be from Nunavut and comfortable in the northern wilderness.
Like so many aboriginal children, Eric suffered the consequences of Canada's past treatment of native peoples. The impact descends through the generations, resulting in challenges to self-esteem and identity. It is difficult to believe in your own worth when your parents and grandparents have been undervalued, as Canadians are now beginning to realize and understand. To help other Inuit youth achieve the success for which Eric worked so hard, we have established a charitable foundation in his memory, the Ayalik Fund. It will help some Nunavut youths participate in confidence-building programs, such as Outward Bound and Encounters With Canada, which made such a difference for Eric.
At 19, Eric had graduated from high school, had a wonderful girlfriend, was proudly working in his first full-time job as a surveyor's assistant, and enjoying the taste of success. He was a fine young man, with a promising future, tragically unfulfilled.
David Pelly is Eric's adoptive father.