Wilbert Antoine is looking back at a lengthy and fulfilling career after retiring with more than 48 years in the mining sector.
The milestone was particularly noteworthy as Antoine said he came from very humble beginnings with his family. Born in 1947 at Rabbitskin River, Antoine said he made it through the difficult years of residential school to move into an ever-growing career in mining that spanned five decades.
After a four-year stint in his late teens and early 20s as a road surveyor in Alberta, Antoine began working at the Hinton coal mine in December 1971.
He spent 30 years working his way up the ladder, starting as a shovel operator – or what he laughingly calls ‘the goon swoon’ – for Cardinal River Operations, which operated the coal mine from 1969 to 2004.
He made the jump back North in 2004 to work for the Ekati diamond mine. He wrapped up this his career in September working for NorZinc as a manager of northern development, advocating for the Prairie Creek Zinc project.
Antoine is quick to point out that he’s a living example that despite life’s obstacles, people can achieve a satisfying career in anything that they want to achieve, provided they keep looking ahead. He said this is particularly important to remember for Indigenous people like himself who survived residential school, who struggled with addictions and who aren’t from a culture known for a strong background in mining.
“How many people have put in 48-and-a-half years into mining?” he asked. “I would put my career on the table and say, ‘Match this,’ especially a skinny little Indian from Rabbitskin River.”
He grew up on the land as one of seven boys and six girls in the Antoine family. Former NWT Premier Jim Antoine and Gerald Antoine, current chief of the Liidlii Kue Dene First Nation and former Deh Cho First Nations grand chief, are among his siblings.
Much of Wilbert’s fulfillment in life didn’t come exclusively from the work itself. He was always involved with extracurricular activities and developing his career.
He was active as a representative with his union – the United Mine Workers – and served on the board of directors for the Hinton General Hospital for five terms. He even worked his way up to northwest regional representative for the Alberta Hospital Association for two years.
And then there was hockey, another beloved pastime.
Now divorced, Antoine was able to raise three children who took on successful careers of their own, he added.
He said closing out his career having an influence on Indigenous involvement in mining tops it all off.
“I always envisioned getting a new mine started with a healthy workforce of Aboriginal people with first-time miners,” he said. “One of the things I would like to see is Prairie Creek mine go into production. If one Aboriginal person makes a good long life like I do, I would feel honoured to be able to provide that leadership.”
Won’t get dragged down
This week marked Orange Shirt Day, a time when Canadians observe the legacy of residential schools. Wearing a small orange shirt cutout on his lapel, Antoine said it’s important to recount this overwhelming experience that Indigenous people faced.
As a child, he initially attended Sacred Heart Mission school in Fort Providence for five years. He spent a year at Grollier Hall when it opened in Inuvik in 1960 before being handpicked by the Roman Catholic Church as one of the brighter students to attend Grandin College in Fort Smith. He spent five years there rubbing shoulders with numerous people from across the North who would develop into future leaders, among them former Premier Stephen Kakfwi, who shared his residential school experience with NNSL Media recently.
As a survivor, Kakfwi said this time of season as well as Christmas are especially difficult because of the memories of being taken away from family and culture for long periods.
As a friend of Kakfwi, Antoine said he harbours the same sorts of feelings, saying the weather and hearing old Christmas carols bring about sad memories.
“Yeah, I do find these are hard times, especially this time of year as the leaves are falling and the grass is yellow and winds are blowing,” Antoine said. “I see Fort Providence and we are on the second floor (of the school) and we see all that.
“Myself I don’t dwell on it as much as others do because it drags you down. I try not to drag myself down in the abysmal feeling. Whenever I feel that way I visit people and turn it off. But it is always there and always will be.”