John Zigarlick, Jr. was a visionary mine-maker and company-builder who left an enduring legacy in Canada’s North through innovative infrastructure development and the formation of progressive Aboriginal business partnerships. As head of Echo Bay Mines in the 1980s, Zigarlick conceived and led construction of the world’s largest winter road in order to service the Lupin gold mine, which he built using air support due to its remote location 400 km northeast of Yellowknife. The Tibbitt to Contwoyto road was a daunting challenge, as 75% of the 568-km route was built over lake ice, making it the largest ice road of that time. Under Zigarlick’s leadership, Lupin became one of Canada’s top gold producers while Echo Bay grew from a net worth of $7 million in 1979 into a North American producer with a 1992 market capitalization of approximately $2 billion.
After retiring from Echo Bay, Zigarlick incorporated Nuna Logistics as a partnership with the Inuit of the Kitikmeot Region in Nunavut. It was a timely move, as the ice road he helped create provided a lifeline for Canada’s first diamond mines and a host of other projects. Nuna became the largest Aboriginal civil contractor in Canada, and provided a role model for similar ventures.
Born in Winnipeg, Zigarlick followed in his father’s footsteps and worked in uranium mining camps of northern Saskatchewan before leaving to serve in the Canadian military. In 1971, he joined Echo Bay as a purchasing and personnel manager and became president and CEO in 1977, after earning a degree in business administration from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Echo Bay’s sole asset was the Port Radium silver mine in the NWT, which was supplied by air and a winter road from the Mackenzie Highway, several hundred kilometres to the south.
As Port Radium neared depletion, Zigarlick acquired the remote Lupin gold discovery and after a brief underground program, proposed a mine. It was not an easy sell to Echo Bay’s owners, but Zigarlick persevered and built Lupin almost entirely with materials brought in by a Hercules and Convair aircraft, on time and on budget, in 1982. He then took on the challenge of building a winter road to service Lupin, a phenomenal feat that contributed to the mine’s profitability and also demonstrated the viability of remote Arctic mines to the world. Echo Bay went on to acquire and develop additional mines in Nevada, Colorado and the state of Washington.
In 1993, Zigarlick formed Nuna Logistics with two Inuit corporations and took over annual construction of his old Lupin winter road, which fortuitously passed near diamond discoveries being developed into the Ekati and Diavik mines. The road went from handling 500-600 truck loads per year while serving Lupin to more than 10,000 truck loads annually while serving the diamond mines at their peak.
Zigarlick also found time for charitable work, particularly with the Boyle Street Soup Kitchen in Edmonton, where he served Christmas dinner for sixteen years. His legacy lives on through his famous winter road and the success of the Aboriginal businesses he helped foster. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the CIM’s John Campbell Sproule Award, The Northern Miner’s 1984 Mining Man of the Year, PDAC’s 1985 Distinguished Service Award, and the 2006 Transport Association of Canada Award.