Peter Risby will be 1st Black person in Canadian Mining Hall of Fame

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

Peter Risby in the field

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.

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.

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.

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 disclosed how his parents kept him hidden in a chicken coop whenever “the authorities” — meaning, the KKK — came looking for the mixed-race child.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.