As a retirement gift to himself, Alex Hay bought a bright yellow 16-foot sea kayak and planned some paddling adventures as he drove the nearly 2,000 kilometers home to Ottawa from Mishkeegogamang First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
Hay had spent the winter in Pickle Lake, the last school year of his long career, teaching Indigenous youth and adults with the Keewaytinook Internet High School. A keen outdoorsman, environmentalist and experienced canoeist, There discovered kayaking a few years ago and planned to add it to his post-retirement hobbies, an already a long list that included cycling, hiking, music, Scrabble, hammocks, ping pong and “being outdoors as much as possible.”
But Hay’s retirement was to be cut cruelly short. Searchers found his body on the shores of Lake Superior in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, not far from his kayak and the site where he had planned to spend a week alone camping. A post-mortem revealed the fit adventurer had died of a heart attack.
“It makes me feel better to know that he died looking at the sky,” said his partner of nearly 10 years, Yasmina Tirib. “Outside, I felt free.”
Alexander Hay was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and immigrated to Canada with his family when he was a young boy. He earned a master’s degree in history and a bachelor of education and began his teaching career in Ottawa in 1977. He spent some time teaching in Botswana and living in Nepal, but for the past 15 years taught at the Ottawa Adult High School on Rochester Street .
“He never finished his day when everyone else did,” Tirib said. “There was always two hours or three hours afterward helping each individual. And he would bring their stories home with him. They were haunting him all the time.”
There are loved children, but his passion was for teaching adults, particularly refugees and newcomers to Canada.
“I thought he could make more of a difference by helping adults,” she said. “He said they brought all this experience, all this knowledge. He understood that for immigrants coming from another country, the barrier would be the language. He thought he would help with their English so that they could succeed living in Canada, their new home.
“It was indirect. I wanted to help them, so they could help their kids.”
Some of the graduates became close friends. One woman from Eritrea “has become like a sister to me,” Tirib said.
I have loved music. I have played guitar, mandolin, ukulele and “anything with strings on it.”
I hated injustice. After the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting, Hay organized a “human chain” to surround the Ottawa Mosque in his Champlain Park neighbourhood. In 2016, with Tirib his mother de el, Joan, and others, Hay sponsored a Syrian family and their three young children, refugees fleeing that country’s civil war.
The mother “didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived,” Tirib said. “He was encouraging her, saying, ‘You can do this. You can do this.’”
This week, she graduated from the Adult High School.
Hay took a leave of absence from his last year with the Ottawa board to work on the First Nation reserve. It meant that, for the first time in his life, he had to buy a car for the long drive to Pickle Lake.
“He was very conflicted. He didn’t want to leave us here. But I said, ‘That would be the perfect ending to your teaching career,’” Tirib said.
It was a tough assignment. The reserve was locked down for much of the winter because of COVID-19.
“He was very worried that he couldn’t have the impact that he had in Adult High School. But we had our conversations about it. I said, ‘One hour with someone and you will have touched one person, one family, and you will have accomplished something.’”
Hay’s official retirement was May 31, but the school year ended early. He set out for home with his kayak, promising Tirib he would back in Ottawa “by the summer solstice.”
“He bought the kayak as a gift for his retirement,” she said. “He was so cute. He said, ‘Can I use our credit card to buy the kayak?’”
Supply issues meant Hay couldn’t get a spray skirt, the protective covering that keeps water out of the kayak cockpit, but he rented a dry suit to wear while paddling in the frigid water of Lake Superior. Hay had kayaked on Georgian Bay and on Manitoulin Island before, but he did not have extensive experience with the craft.
Tirib worried when Hay didn’t contact her for several days, not even to wish her luck in Ottawa Race Weekend marathon on May 29. But the cellphone coverage is spotty in the park and he finally got through that evening.
“I gave him hell!” she joked. “He said, ‘OK, no worrying from now on. I’m staying in the park until the end of the week.’ We talked. He was so happy. I said, ‘You can’t go out into the open water. You have to stay close to shore.’ And I have agreed.”
Hay’s last text came on May 31st. He was trying to pay his park permit since the park’s computers had been down when he first arrived. He was last seen alive on June 1.
His body was found June 8 after an air, land a sea search by police, park staff and the coast guard. He was found at the shoreline, still wearing his PFD life jacket. Tirib said he had no history of heart problems, but the autopsy revealed he’d had an earlier heart attack that had perhaps gone unnoticed. Tirib suspects Hay had the heart attack while paddling, then capsized into the water.
When Tibir flew to Thunder Bay to meet with police, she was welcomed by women from Mishkeegogamang.
“They surrounded me with love and strength. I wouldn’t have made it back home the same without them,” Tirib said. “They didn’t leave alone and consoled me with legends of the sleeping giant, Alex’s funny adventures of kick sledding and stories of their losses, grief and healing.”
Though Sleeping Giant park is beautiful, it’s also “a risky place, a dangerous place,” she said.
“The police told me he took all the precautions and security measures. It would be hard to live with the fact if he was careless, but he wasn’t.”
Nevertheless, she wonders if Alex’s relative inexperience played a role. Would an emergency locator like a satellite-based inReach beacon have brought him help? What if she’d been there with him?
“But even if I was there, by the time we brought him to shore maybe it would have been too late,” she said.
“We think we have all the time in the world,” she said. “But we don’t. Every minute is precious.”
Alex Hay is survived by Yasmina; his mother, Joan; his children Madelaine and Desmond and stepson Zachary; and his former wife, Lillian; and his siblings of him Lyndal, Sheridan and Justin.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to Ottawa Center Refugee Action (OCRA), Ecology Ottawa, Medecins Sans Frontières, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.