From Kansas to Dawson City, Peter Risby took the long road to mining hall of fame

Risby, the first Black person to be inducted has close ties to Cree community.

 


You could say that Peter Risby took a long and winding road through life.

Born in Kansas in 1931, Risby fled the racist arm of the Klu Klux Klan and came to Canada – eventually settling in northern Alberta.

“His life story is remarkable,” says his daughter Tara Risby.

Born to a Black father and white mother, Risby and his family arrived near the Cree community of Bigstone Cree Nation.

That’s where he became fluent in Cree and learned to hunt and trap in the bush.

“It really shaped who he was throughout his entire life and he remained grateful to First Nations for the entirety of his life,” Tara says.

At age seven Risby was sent to the Desmarais Residential School, also known as St. Martin’s, in Desmarais, Alta., along with his peers.

Tara is unsure why her father was sent to residential school, though she assumes it was due to the racial attitudes of the time.

Risby eventually escaped with the help of the Cree community who hid him and kept his whereabouts a secret, and he was able to return to his family’s farm.

Risby later became interested in prospecting while rooming with a geology student in Cassiar, B.C.

In 1957 he began prospecting in Yukon and sold his first claims to Johns Manville Co., then the world’s largest asbestos producer.

His skill and sharp mind led to a successful career and he went on to develop and operate the Indian River mine near Dawson City which became a leading gold producer.

But Tara says despite his achievements, Risby faced adversity as a person of colour in a white-dominated field.

“That’s one of the reasons why he wanted to create opportunities for other people of colour, particularly indigenous people, due to his upbringing among the Alberta Cree,” she says.

Later in his career, Risby taught prospecting and mineral identification to Indigenous students.

He also created opportunities for women to join the field.

“So in an era where those things were not commonplace he really blazed a trail,” Tara says.

Risby died in 2011 in Calgary from pancreatic cancer at age 79.

Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada says Risby’s life was “inspiring.”

“I think everyone thought ‘wow what a guy,” he says.

However, Gratton notes the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame still has a long way to go in terms of diversity.

He hopes Risby’s induction will inspire young people of colour to pursue a career in mining.

“Definitely within the Canadian community our demographic is still pretty limited and we need to change that,” he says.

An award will be presented to Risby’s family at an induction ceremony in August.

Tara says she’s thrilled her father is getting the recognition he deserves.

“For him to be the first black person to be inducted is just another level. We’re just so proud of him and so excited.”

Risby died in Calgary in 2011 at age 79 from pancreatic cancer.

Reporter / Whitehorse

Sara Connors is originally from Nova Scotia and has a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. After graduation she worked in South Korea for two years as an English Language teacher and freelance journalist. After she returned home in 2019 she worked behind the scenes at CTV Atlantic in Halifax before joining APTN's Yukon bureau in July 2020.