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Read the inspiring story of the Arctic Inspiration Prize and the $60M donated by RBC Wealth Management clients to make it a reality.

When a group of Elders in the Northwest Territories decided to create an urban space for Indigenous peoples to practice wellness based on their own culture and traditions, they never imagined it would become a prize-winning project now inspiring other communities.

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation (AIWF), an urban, land-based healing program on the outskirts of Yellowknife, has served more than 2,000 people seeking health and wellness, counselling and community support.

“The project was created by the Elders as a way to bring the land to the people in the urban area,” says Dr. Nicole Redvers, chair of the AIWF board. “The goal was to make it as easy as possible for them to access services, by limiting the barriers, and in a way that’s culturally relevant to them.”

The outdoor camp includes a teepee and tents, a wood stove and cookout area that operates year-round. The staff includes Indigenous community members and Elders who are on hand to help both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people seeking guidance and support for different issues such as substance abuse and mental health.

Since it opened in the spring of 2018, the camp has helped transform many lives, including empowering people to stop use drugs and alcohol, to start working again or to go back to school. “It has created a support system for the community,” says Redvers, who is a naturopathic doctor and member of the Deninu K’ue First Nation in the NWT.

The camp’s success to date is mainly due to the C$1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP) the AIWF won in 2017. The money has helped fund the project, including building and operating the site.

The AIP was founded in 2012 by Canadian immigrants, and RBC Wealth Management clients, Sima Sharifi and husband Arnold Witzig. The philanthropic couple, based in Vancouver, fell in love with Canada’s North after taking a trip to Iqaluit years ago — and have spent more time exploring the Arctic ever since.

“We wanted to inspire, enable and somehow celebrate all these achievements of the people in the North,” Witzig said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2018.

The couple donated $60-million to the AIP, which awards a total of $3-million annually; including a single $1-million prize, up to four prizes valued at up to $500,000 and up to seven prizes of up to $100,000 for youth under age 30. The awards go to community-based projects that help address educational, health, environmental and economic issues.

In 2018, the RBC Foundation provided $250,000 in financial support to the Rideau Hall Foundation — the organization that manages and administers the prize on behalf of The Arctic Inspiration Prize Charitable Trust. Additionally, the RBC Foundation has funded one of the prizes awarded to participants.

According to the AIP website, the prize “is intended for multidisciplinary teams who have made a substantial, demonstrated and distinguished contribution to the gathering of Arctic knowledge and who have provided a concrete plan and commitment to implement their knowledge into real-world application for the benefit of the Canadian Arctic, its peoples and therefore Canada as a whole.”

Some of the other past AIP winners include:

  • te(a)ch, which teaches young people computer coding, game design, engineering, and computer science;
  • SmartICE (Sea-Ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments), a sea-ice monitoring system that enables community members to plan safe passage on sea ice and;
  • FOXY (Fostering Open Expression Among Youth) which support sex education and LGBTQ awareness in northern communities.

“It’s people in the North, helping people in the North,” says AIP executive director Marti Ford, who took on her role last year. She was drawn to the position based on the projects the AIP supports and their impact to date.

“It’s doing things. It’s making changes and it’s grassroots,” Ford says. “These are people who know what’s needed in their communities coming forward saying, ‘this is what we have to do.’ And they’re doing it.”

Ford recalls a speech from one teen who learned to make art from scrap metal, thanks to the From Scrap to Art project, which won an AIP in 2018. “He said, ‘someone taught us to weld, and now we’re making art,’” she recalls. “I started to cry, alongside almost everyone else in the audience.”

Redvers of the AIWF says the AIP is unique because it enables communities to help themselves. “It’s one of the only prizes that allows projects to be self-determined,” Redvers says “It allows community-driven solutions to prevail.”

The AIWF has helped several people in the community, Redvers says, including men who are often reluctant to seek help for issues such as drug and alcohol abuse or depression. The men helped by the program have since inspired others to seek help.

“These are men that failed other social and treatment programs,” she says. “Here, people recognize this person that is now completely well. That has given hope to others to say, ‘maybe I can do that too.’”

The AIWF has motivated other communities to start similar programs that combine modern and traditional forms of treatment, including healing techniques like traditional food preparation.

“It has been very fulfilling for us to help other communities bring self-determined health practices back to their communities,” says Redvers. “None of that would have been possible without this prize.”

Another AIP winner and success story is Qarmaapik Family House in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que., which provides development programs for parents and a safe space for children to stay during a family crisis. It includes a safe house component and prevention component for issues such as family violence, abuse and suicide prevention.

The project began after statistics showed the community had more children in foster care than any other community in Nunavik, says Hilda Snowball, one of the founders of Qarmaapik Family House.

“We came up with the project so we can have children in a safe place and counselling for the parents in our own way, before children are reported to the Youth Protection,” says Snowball, the former mayor of Kangiqsualujjuaq who is now vice chair of the Kativik Regional Government.

The program was awarded $700,000 from the AIP in 2016 and the funds are used to support families and community members receive the support, understanding and tools needed to handle a family crisis — and try to prevent them, where possible. The AIP money helps to fund counselling services, training for counsellors as well as developing activities for families, like excursions out on the land. The program is culturally appropriate, run by Elders and counsellors from the community.

“We want to take ownership and provide services in our own way,” says Snowball. “It has been challenging, but also empowering for our community.”

Snowball says they’ve also been approached by other communities seeking to set up similar programs in their areas.

“We have seen a very positive impact on the community,” she says. “We are really trying to empower our people so that we, as a community, can be responsible and accountable for ourselves and our own actions.”