Marcel: I don't really have a coal mining background. I'm more of an artist than a coal miner.
In 1979, I had just graduated from the Alberta College of Art in Calgary when a guy loaned me a canoe. Bev and I decided to take a trip down the Red Deer River from Red Deer. It took us five days to reach East Coulee because it was so beautiful along the way. We didn't even know East Coulee, but we camped there overnight. The next thing we knew, we fell in love with it. We could see abandoned little miners' homes all over the place. Before we returned to Calgary, we decided we would try to get one of those shacks and maybe stay in it for a year or two. A year later, we got a house on the river and are still living in it. Over the years, I have renovated it and created a studio for my painting.
The town was full of stories – that's what captivated me, too. There was quite a wonderful history in that town.
So there we were in East Coulee, with no work and having a baby, when our neighbour Julie Auld told the boys at the mine that I could use some work. The next thing I knew, Bis Griffin came to my place and said, "If you see a blue light on top of the tipple, there'll be work. Why don't you come along?"
I worked two winters on the tipple: I was on the shaker, and loaded boxcars and trucks. I also delivered coal to some farmers and all the people in East Coulee who were still using coal. For me, working at that mine was like going back to the '30s and '40s.
In the winter, the Atlas had a couple of places where you could warm up from the cold. One of them was the old washhouse. There was always a fire in the potbelly stove. I think some guys even spent the night in there. In the morning, you might find some guy cooking pork chops and making coffee on that stove.
I think Omer Patrick kept the mine going just for the benefit of some of the old guys. Let me tell you, I had a hard time keeping up with those guys. There was wonderful comradeship. Mining was different than construction. In that little place, everybody was helpful and more heartfelt than I would ever have imagined. A lot of them were in their 60s and they could have retired, but working at the mine was a lot more fun than staying at home watching soap operas.
After John Vasko retired, he always had his hard hat on and was around the tipple to help or give me advice, just to keep himself busy.
After the mine shut down, I did various jobs, but my biggest job was painting the dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. I also painted some of the murals on buildings in Drumheller. These days, I've been doing some work for the movie and television industry in Saskatchewan.
I met Bev in Edmonton when I was 18. She's been a teacher at the Morrin School for 25 years – she's a wonderful schoolteacher. She'll be retiring this spring.
My wife and I always thought the East Coulee School would make a good museum. We helped form the Dinosaur Valley Heritage Society and, with the help of Barry Graham, got a grant to save the school. A lot of people thought it should have been bulldozed. I believe the school museum helped save the Atlas Mine as a heritage site.