Canadian Geographic


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

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