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.