Eldon Ralph Perry was born on Aug. 28, 1953, to Samuel and Winnie Perry in Twillingate, Nfld., near Samson Island, the tiny fishing and logging community where they lived until the mid-’50s, when residents were relocated to Little Burnt Bay, on the mainland, to give them better access to services. The youngest of 17 children (seven were from his parents’ previous marriages), Eldon was a “cute little boy” whose quiet warmth and humour made him well-liked, says sister Joan. A tight-knit family that ate dinner together at one long table, the Perrys were shaken when, in 1963, cancer claimed Winnie’s life. With Samuel often away logging, Joan, just 16 at the time, took over raising Eldon and his brother Bruce.
The boys, who were two years apart, adapted well. They were huge hockey fans and dug out a makeshift rink, buried under mounds of snow, almost daily. Thanks to Bobby Hull, Eldon and Bruce became lifelong Chicago Blackhawks supporters. Since Montreal and Toronto were more popular in the Perry residence, this made for lively Saturday nights. In fact, when family and friends gathered to watch Hockey Night in Canada, says Bruce, the TV room was “like a sports bar.”
After high school, Eldon took a drafting course at a college in nearby Lewisporte. Faced with limited job prospects, he set his sights on Labrador City, where the Iron Ore Company (IOC) was hiring. For his 18th birthday—the minimum age to work in the mine—his dad bought him a plane ticket. “It was a big thing for a young fella,” says Joan. On Sept. 3, 1971, days after his arrival, Eldon started at IOC as a general labourer in the open-pit mine.
With the company of his sister Hope, who lived in town, Eldon revelled in his new surroundings. An avid hunter and fisherman, he took advantage of the plentiful snow, buying a Ski-Doo as soon as he could. “He put up with the isolation for the good of the other things,” says Joan. By the time he met Edna Deir at a dance in 1972, he had started growing the full, thick moustache that became his trademark. Edna was attracted to his dry wit and laid-back demeanour. “We got along perfect,” she says. In 1974, they were married.
Eldon’s knack for diffusing tense moments with humour was appreciated in the mine, says George Kean, the long-time president of the local United Steelworkers union. After a few years at IOC, Eldon got his journeyman’s licence, and became a welder. Known for his meticulous planning, Eldon was “always safety-conscious,” says George, and could execute a set of plans on the first try.
Accustomed to a full house, Eldon was thrilled when children Linette and Stephen were born. He coached their sports teams and took them Ski-Dooing, insisting they wear helmets, “when it wasn’t cool,” says Stephen. Theirs was “the go-to house in the neighbourhood,” he says, and Eldon often joined street hockey games. He urged the kids to spend time in nature, rather than watch movies (he didn’t like anything that wasn’t a “true story,” says Linette), prompting them to refer to activities that met his standards as “Eldon-approved.” There were exceptions. Stephen cheered for the Canadiens; Eldon took him to games at the Montreal Forum several times, waiting outside with him afterwards, sometimes in the rain, in the hopes of scoring autographs.
The remoteness of Labrador meant that “your friends became your family,” says Edna. Eldon forged close bonds with his co-workers, and would “go the extra mile” with new arrivals, says friend Wade Pevie, inviting them to the lakeside cabin he built, and getting them involved in the community. Ten years ago, he could have retired, but he enjoyed the camaraderie and decided to stay on. As a veteran miner, Eldon, who posted photos of his granddaughter Aliya in his locker, took young workers under his wing to show them the ropes. He looked forward to vacations—he would make lists of what to bring weeks in advance—but it became clear that his heart was in the Big Land, the locals’ affectionate nickname for Labrador. When Joan asked when he planned to move home, he told her: “This is my home now.”
On the afternoon of March 18, Eldon was working with another miner on an engineered platform, about 25 feet in the air. The platform tipped, sending both men tumbling to the ground. Without access to a CT scanner, doctors at the nearby hospital were unable to determine the extent of Eldon’s injuries, and sent for an air ambulance to take him to St. John’s. While he waited, he was conscious, making small talk with his family. But more than 10 hours later, with no sign of the air ambulance, doctors began to intubate him, and he went into cardiac arrest. Eldon Perry died in Labrador City.
He was 56.