Meet 4 Innovative Organizations Transforming Canada’s North

Winners of the Arctic Inspiration Prize are transforming the North.

Why It Matters

Canada’s Arctic is leading the way on a number of innovations that enhance lives. Every year, the Arctic Inspiration Prize awards funding to projects by the North, for the North. This innovative prize approach uses a non-traditional funding model to support and accelerate Arctic-led projects — and these four previous prize winners show that the model is working.

Photo by Leonard Laub on Unsplash

From life jackets to kayaks, Inuit ideas and ingenuity continue to shape Canada and the world. An immense territory, the Canadian Arctic is home to a growing population of over 100,000 northern Canadians, with a majority of Indigenous peoples with a millennial history and rich culture. Today, technological shifts, demographic shifts, environmental shifts, economic shifts, and others are transforming Inuit communities. Addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of accelerating changes in culture, technology and economy require creative approaches, including mobilizing innovations from past and present to shape an inspiring future.

Organizations in Northern Canada are expanding their innovative community work through the Arctic Inspiration Prize, which distributes up to $3 million annually to teams who are using Arctic knowledge, from traditional to scientific, to directly impact communities.

“The goal of the prize is to be by the North and for the North. It’s for northerners to implement their ideas, not for southerners to impose their ideas on the North,” says Katie Blasco, the Operations Manager at the Arctic Inspiration Prize. “It recognizes that the people who live there know best what is needed, whether its social-, health-, or science-related.”

Blasco says this unconventional funding model in the philanthropic sector — there are no strings attached to receiving the prize — has proven to be successful since the Arctic Inspiration Prize first launched in 2012. “It’s a gift,” she says. “Once you get the money, there isn’t any financial reporting. There is trust that [the laureates] will do what they said they would do.”

The prize is the brainchild of Arnold Witzig and Sima Sharifi, a Vancouver couple who fell in love with Canada’s Arctic and donated nearly all of their wealth, a sum close to $60 million, to a charitable trust that funds the prize.

“I have a deep appreciation for the northerners and the knowledge they have,” Witzig said in an interview last year, reflecting on his time in Canada’s North. “Many southerners who have never been exposed to such an environment have a hard time understanding what people in the North really are able and capable to do.”

The prize’s priority areas include: education, health, socio-cultural issues, environment, and the economy, with an emphasis on Indigenous-led projects. This year’s submission of nomination packages is open until October 15, 2019.

Four Arctic Innovations Leading the Way

The Arctic Inspiration Prize has recognized a wide range of projects, from an initiative to revitalize traditional Inuit tattooing methods to a program that provides professional legal education in Nunavummiut.

Below, we’ve rounded up four noteworthy initiatives awarded by the Arctic Inspiration Prize.


SmartICE (Sea-ice Monitoring And Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments) is the world’s first climate change adaptation tool that integrates traditional knowledge of sea ice with data and technology. Founded by a group of partners — including the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization, Memorial University, and the Nunatsiavut government, amongst others — the tool provides real-time, data-driven information about sea-ice thickness and local ice conditions.

Arctic communities rely on sea ice to access food and maintain cultural traditions, but climate change has led to thinning sea ice, putting these communities at risk. According to one 2010 survey of residents in Nain (Nunatsiavut), 75 percent of sea-ice users reported that they could no longer predict ice conditions. One in 12 people had also fallen through ice the previous winter.

In response, SmartICE uses a system that combines traditional Inuit knowledge with scientific data, helping northerners make strategic decisions regarding safe routes for sea-ice travel. It also allows northerners to access community services and plan for hunting, fishing, and emergency response via a cloud-based interface, the SmartICE app, and hard copies of relevant data.

“SmartICE is a great partnership between traditional Inuit knowledge and science, and is also an example of collaboration between the North and South, and science and tradition,” Blasco says.

In 2016, SmartICE was awarded $400,000 by the Arctic Inspiration Prize.

Pirurvik – A Place to Grow: Early Childhood Education for Nunavummiut

Pilimmaksarniq is an Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit traditional child-rearing practice of allowing children to learn at their own pace. The Pirurvik Preschool in Pond Inlet, Nunavut is an early childhood education centre rooted in this principle, encouraging children to follow their natural curiosities.

The centre’s approach is facilitated by the Montessori method of learning, which also encourages children to take the lead in their own learning. At Pirurvik, classroom materials such as flash cards, blocks, and puzzles are available to students at all times, and they choose which materials they want to work with and the duration of time they’d like to utilize them.

Pirurvik incorporates core Inuit societal values into its programming, such as Tunnganarniq (“fostering good spirits by being open, welcoming, and inclusive”), by including children with special needs in classrooms to foster an inclusive space. It also incorporates Inuuqatigiitsiarniq (“respecting others, relationships, and caring for people”) by permitting older children to guide younger children, creating a space which allows them to respect others’ learning journey and care for one another.

In 2018, the Pirurvik team received $1 million by the Arctic Inspiration Prize to expand its programs to seven communities in Nunavut, with hopes of replicating this model throughout the entire territory.

Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project is a healing program targeting Inuit, First Nation, and Métis people at risk of suicide and incarceration. The project combines Indigenous cultural education with traditional therapeutic interventions and revives traditional and indigenous-based healing practices in the North. 

Issues such as substance abuse, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and homelessness disproportionately impact Canada’s northern population and impact Indigenous populations even more so. According to the Arctic Wellness Indigenous Foundation (AIWF), Indigenous people account for over 90 percent of the homeless population in the Northwest Territories.

Started by a group of Indigenous Elders from the Dene, Inuit, and Métis people in the North, the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project was established to “ensure the next generation of Indigenous people are as healthy and happy as their ancestors.” It is a humanitarian response to the health needs in the North.

The organization offers programs and advocacy, including researching Indigenous healthcare delivery and sharing knowledge about traditional medicine. Their mental wellness programs for Indigenous boys and men aim to improve mental wellbeing through sharing traditional healthy-living principles with a demographic who has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. AIWF also facilitates educational spaces for traditional healers and helpers to pass on their knowledge in order to revitalize Indigenous healing traditions, which are said to be nearly extinct in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. 

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation was awarded $1 million by the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2017.


While Nunavut is rich in performing arts, it is the only territory or province in Canada without a performing arts centre. This integral part of northern people’s identity and culture may be lost without a more formal and strategic structure of support. In response, the Qaggic project is working to strengthen Arctic culture by building the territory’s first performing arts centre.

Qaggic, a professional Inuit performing arts and cultural learning hub, will be a performing arts centre in Iqaluit where local people will create, practice, and preserve art, such as throat singing, rap, storytelling, drum dancing, and theatre. It will also provide economic opportunities for performing artists in Nunavut.

Through artist mapping, artist and teacher training, and performances, Qaggic will nurture this art form in the North, and the centre will also run programming for at-risk youth. 

Qaggic was awarded $600,000 by the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2015.