NNSL Photo/Graphic


Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size Email this articleE-mail this page

The North loses a pioneer

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The man most responsible for building the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto winter road - and arguably opening up Canada's far North to mining - has died at the age of 74.

NNSL photo/graphic

John Zigarlick Jr. died suddenly of natural causes in Edmonton on Saturday. While Zigarlick may have never called the NWT home, he left his mark on the land in his work on isolated mines and extreme-terrain infrastructure management. - Bill Braden photo

John Zigarlick Jr. died in his Edmonton home Saturday. He had visited Yellowknife the Thursday before and was on his way to his other home in Vancouver, where the national headquarters for his company, Nuna Logistics Ltd., is located.

"He was really a larger than life character and visionary for the North," said Johanne Johnson, human resources manager at Nuna Logistics.

"He was a very focused individual," said Tom Hoefer, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Mines. "He was a very strong believer in what was possible and he got the job done. He wasn't just a talker."

Zigarlick was born in Winnipeg but was raised mainly in Uranium City, Sask. and other Northern mining communities. His father, John Zigarlick Sr., was a mine worker.

Zigarlick joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1957 where he served 11 years, serving most of his time as a military policeman.

After retiring from the army, Zigarlick found himself back in the mining business. He went to work with his father, who was then managing the Port Radium silver mine on Great Bear Lake. Discounting two years in a Northern Saskatchewan mine in his youth, Zigarlick always worked in management positions.

"I don't know if John ever blew up a piece of rock in his life but he knew mining," Bill Braden told Yellowknifer.

Braden came to know Zigarlick over the last two years because the two were working together on a book about Zigarlick's pet project - the winter road.

"The diamonds would not have happened without a winter road. And that's not to say that it wouldn't have happened without John," said Braden. "Someone else might have done it but he's the one who did."

Zigarlick's first heavy-machinery road trip into an undeveloped area of the far North was in 1979. Zigarlick wanted to develop the Lupin site located 400 km North of Yellowknife for Echo Mines, so he and Dick Robinson of Yellowknife's Robinson Trucking organized a convoy to punch a road up to the site.

Under primitive conditions, the crew plowed through and made it to the site and back in 25 days, said Braden. The same trip today takes about 30 hours.

However, when it came to building the Lupin mine, an attempt to make a more permanent access road failed. So Zigarlick bought a Boeing 737 and airlifted equipment and parts from Yellowknife. After five years of hard work, the Lupin gold mine went into production.

Those were the glory days when gold was at $800 an ounce, Braden said, but when the Canadian economy followed the U.S. into a double-dip recession in the 1980s, Zigarlick once again needed his winter road. This time he would get it.

Robinson Trucking was tasked with building the southern half of the winter road and the Northern half was completed by workers at the Lupin site, who by then knew the land and the ice conditions well enough to get the job done.

And so, in 1982, the first full-time road into the Barren Lands opened. Since then, the Tibbitt-to-Contwoyto winter road has never missed a season and is currently marking it's 30th anniversary.

Johnson said that her warmest memories of her boss were from when he was working on the winter road. "He just loved that project," she said.

"I think John's work actually helped turn around the whole industry up here by showing what was possible with ice roads," Hoefer told Yellowknifer.

"We know the North is one of the most underdeveloped regions in the country from an infrastructure perspective and we know it's also one of the richest in the country geologically."

Zigarlick's two passions were infrastructure development and Canada's far North. These ideals are engrained in Nuna Logistics, a company Zigarlick helped found in 1993 and where he served as chairman and director until the day he died.

Nuna, one of the first Inuit majority owned companies, specializes in construction, logistics, contract mining and mining support services in Canada's North.

"He recognized that Inuit and First Nations should benefit from their land and he was there to be a support and a partner," said Johnson.

Zigarlick is survived by three children - Rory, Lorena and Natalie - six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The family is planning a private funeral within the week but said there will be a larger celebration of his life in the new year in Edmonton.

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.