The Arc­tic In­spi­ra­tion Prize co-founder on cel­e­brat­ing North­ern Canada’s achieve­ments and cre­ativ­ity


Sima Shar­ifi, co-founder of the Arc­tic In­spi­ra­tion Prize, talks cel­e­brat­ing north­ern achieve­ments and cre­ativ­ity

When Sima Shar­ifi came to Canada in 1986 as a po­lit­i­cal refugee from Iran, she fell in love with Canada’s North. So in 2012, Shar­ifi and her hus­band, Swiss ar­chi­tect Arnold Witzig, founded the Arc­tic In­spi­ra­tion Prize to cel­e­brate the re­gion’s achieve­ments and in­ge­nu­ity, award­ing up to $3 mil­lion an­nu­ally to projects that foster and im­ple­ment north­ern knowl­edge. Now, a year af­ter the cou­ple an­nounced a $60-mil­lion do­na­tion to sus­tain the prize into the fu­ture, Shar­ifi dis­cusses her per­sonal con­nec­tion to the com­pe­ti­tion, its un­ex­pected growth and the most mem­o­rable win­ners.

On why she founded the prize

In the mid-2000s, Arnold and I had phil­an­thropic projects in Ethiopia and Latin Amer­ica, but felt we should fo­cus our at­ten­tion at home in Canada, our coun­try of choice. We thought there was no bet­ter place to in­vest than in Canada’s North, along with its chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties. That de­ci­sion was deeply rooted in our de­sire, as im­mi­grants, to con­trib­ute to the fu­ture of our adopted coun­try. The whole idea of AIP is to cel­e­brate achieve­ments in the North by In­dige­nous Peo­ples, their suc­cesses, their ini­tia­tives and their cre­ativ­ity.

On her per­sonal con­nec­tion with the prize

In Iran, where I was born and grew up, I was a mem­ber of a mi­nor­ity group who ex­pe­ri­enced all kinds of dis­crim­i­na­tion on ev­ery level: per­sonal, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal. Af­ter I set­tled in Canada and started my univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion, I took some cour­ses on Canada’s his­tory where I learned about In­dige­nous Peo­ples and the painful en­coun­ters they had with set­tlers. My per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences with dis­crim­i­na­tion dur­ing my child­hood helped me to un­der­stand and feel an affin­ity with them as they strug­gle to pre­serve their cul­ture, lan­guages and land — ev­ery­thing that de­fines them.

On es­pe­cially mem­o­rable projects that won the prize

It’s very hard to choose one. I should men­tion Fos­ter­ing Open ex­pres­sion among Youth (FOXY), based in Yel­lowknife, which teaches young women about sex­ual health and won the $1 mil­lion prize in 2014. The AIP ac­tu­ally helped them grow across the Arc­tic, and fundrais­ing has mul­ti­plied ever since. See­ing young women work­ing to­gether and help­ing teach other young women about sex­ual health was a very pow­er­ful mo­ment for us, and that project re­ally stayed in my mind. FOXY also es­tab­lished a branch to work with young men called Strength, Mas­culin­i­ties and Sex­ual Health.

Sima Shar­ifi at her Van­cou­ver home next to a carv­ing by Billy Merkosak, an artist based in Pond In­let, Nu­navut.

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