'Wild card' Yukon prospector will be 1st Black person in Canadian Mining Hall of Fame

After his family fled the KKK to settle in Canada, Peter Risby went on to become a legendary prospector in the Yukon and a champion for Indigenous inclusion in the mining industry.

The late Yukon legend Peter Risby 'just had so many unbelievable experiences'

The late prospector Peter Risby, with some co-workers in Yukon's Pelly Mountains in 1968. From left, Esau Dick, Risby, Bob McCord and Bob Darney. Later this year, Risby will be inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. (Submitted by Tara Risby)

Growing up, Tara Risby heard plenty of stories from her dad, the late Yukon prospector Peter Risby.

She heard about how Peter, injured in the Korean War, once spent a few months in a Japanese hospital. Then there was the time he went over a cliff in a truck and came away uninjured. Oh, and there was also that helicopter crash that almost killed him and left him with a permanent scar on his cheek.

"We dubbed him 'the cat with nine lives' because he just had so many unbelievable experiences," Tara recalled.

"Yeah, he had quite a storied life."

When Peter Risby finally succumbed to cancer a decade ago, he was a local legend among Northern prospectors. Later this year he'll be entered into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame — becoming the first Black person to be inducted. 

Risby was always something of a trailblazer, with an improbable life story that spans the racially-segregated American midwest of the Ku Klux Klan, the Cree country of Northern Alberta where he briefly attended and then fled from residential school, and eventually the remote bush camps of the North where he made lucrative discoveries of tungsten and gold.

"What a compelling story," gushed Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada, in an online video late last year, announcing Risby's nomination to the hall of fame. He called Risby the "wild card" among the five newest inductees.

"[Risby's story] is one that truly gripped every member of the board when we reviewed this nomination," Gratton said.

Peter Risby was named to the Yukon Prospectors Hall of Fame in his own lifetime, but Tara has always thought her dad's achievements and remarkable life story deserved some wider recognition. When she saw a call for nominations to the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame last year, she submitted his name.

Risby with a gold pan at Yukon's Indian River in the early 1980s. Risby was among the first to explore that area's mineral potential, and he went on to develop and operate a lucrative gold mine there. (Submitted by Tara Risby)

"I thought it was a really great time to pursue it because it would have been 10 years since he passed away. He would have been 90, and it was the 125th anniversary of the [Klondike] Gold Rush," Tara recalled.

"So, you know, the stars really aligned, and I thought it'd be a great opportunity to pursue it."

From the South to the North

Peter Risby's life story could have ended before it ever began. 

His father was a Black railway worker in Kansas who met Risby's mother, a white nursing student, when his job with the Grand Trunk Railroad took him into Canada. The couple fell in love, married and settled in a shantytown in Abeline, Kan., where their son Peter was born in 1931.

Peter later told CBC of how his parents kept him hidden in a chicken coop whenever "the authorities" — meaning, the KKK — came looking for the mixed-race child.

An undated photo of Peter Risby's father in Kansas. (Submitted by Wayne Risby)

Within a few years Risby's parents had fled the U.S. for Canada with help from a friendly priest who set them up with some land in northern Alberta. That's where the family built strong contacts with the local Indigenous community. Peter grew up speaking fluent Cree and learning the bush skills he'd later use as a prospector.

"Hunting, gathering, fishing. That's how I was raised," he recalled to CBC.

Risby was forced to attend residential school but he didn't stay long. He ran away from the school at age seven and according to Tara, his Indigenous friends then helped keep his whereabouts a secret so he never went back. 

He never forgot that, Tara says, and it helped cement the lifelong bond Peter felt with First Nations. Later, as a prospector in the North, Risby would work closely with Indigenous partners and mentor many young Indigenous students.

"That was very important to him, to include Indigenous and First Nations in the minerals industry," Tara said. 

"It was a real big piece of who he was." 

Peter Risby's own entry into the industry was almost accidental. As a young man he went to northern B.C. and found himself rooming with a young geology student. Risby was soon studying alongside his roommate and discovering a new passion for rocks.

He started working in the field, learning more as he went, and doing plenty of reading. Risby would become known as a prospector who always did his research.

"He was somebody that just absorbed information," Tara says.

Risby in the field. Colleagues who knew him describe Risby as patient, observant and tenacious — valuable attributes for a prospector. (Submitted by Wayne Risby)

Peter eventually made his way to the Yukon and sold his first claims to the world's largest asbestos producer. He was in the Ross River area soon after the discovery of the Faro mine site, and that's where industry veteran Blake Macdonald first met him around 1966.

He says Risby was hard-working and determined, and had a real knack for prospecting. He was patient, according to Macdonald.

"The main thing that you have to be is observant … if you got patience and are observant, you can do quite well at it," Macdonald said. 

Carl Schulze, vice president of the Yukon Prospecting Society, also knew Risby well. He describes him as smart and tenacious.

"He was one of the first to open up the Indian River area [near Dawson City, Yukon], to recognize the potential there. He found quite a few tungsten prospects in the Yukon. He also worked in N.W.T. — so he got around. He was a very impressive guy," Schulze said.

Prospecting is a treasure hunt, Schulze says, and it's also one of the last ways to be a true explorer in Canada. Schulze says Risby knew how to spot clues that would lead to discoveries. 

"He was great at it," Schulze said.

An exploration crew at work in the N.W.T., 1978: John Brock, Jack Guild, and Peter Risby. (Blake Macdonald)

"I don't think money was the primary interest for him. I think it was just a drive to, you know, just to find something new." 

'So grateful'   

Tara Risby couldn't be more proud to see her dad set to be immortalized in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. The official induction ceremony will happen in August.

Even putting together the nomination last year was a great experience, Tara says.

"I've had the opportunity to chat with so many people and really get to know my dad on a different level," she said.

"I'm so grateful for it."

'It's so wonderful that he's getting this recognition,' said Tara Risby, seen here with her dad in 1983. (Submitted by Tara Risby)

Tara's excited for her young nephews to hear more stories and learn about their grandfather's accomplishments. She's also aiming to write some children's stories based on her dad's adventures in the North, called Pete the Prospector.

"He was the person that's the embodiment of perseverance in the face of obstacles and, you know, it's so remarkable how many things he overcame," she said.

"It's so wonderful that he's getting this recognition as the first Black person to be inducted. And you know, my hope is that he won't be the last."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from Leonard Linklater