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‘It’s all we really have’: Canadian couple donates $60M fortune as Arctic prize

A polar bear stands on a ice floe in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent.
A polar bear stands on a ice floe in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent. CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A Canadian couple says their decision to donate $60 million — the bulk of their wealth — to a fund aimed at promoting Arctic innovation was inspired by a deep love for the Far North and the people who live there.

Seven years after founding the Arctic Inspiration Prize, Arnold Witzig and Simi Sharifi are handing over what they say is their entire fortune to a trust fund that distributes millions of dollars every year to northern groups whose work improves the quality of life for their community members.

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As immigrants to Canada going back more than 30 years, Sharifi said, the couple wanted to focus their philanthropic efforts on their adopted homeland and its northern Indigenous people, whose resilience and culture they deeply respect.

“We have an affinity and understanding of the Canadian Indigenous people, their history, their culture,” said Sharifi, who was born to an Arab mother and an Iranian father and spent the first part of her life in southwestern Iran.

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“Some of my feelings and closeness and understanding comes from my own personal experience as someone who grew up in a minority ethnic group in a developing country.”

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The Arctic Inspiration Prize was established in 2012 and offers financial support to groups working to benefit the Canadian Arctic, its people and Canada as a whole.

Eight teams shared more than $2.4 million this year, including a $1-million top prize for a land-based healing program to help at-risk Inuit, First Nation and Metis peoples in Yellowknife and surrounding communities in the Northwest Territories. The recipients were announced Wednesday night in Ottawa at the Northern Lights Business and Cultural Showcase.

A youth category was included this year for the first time, awarding up to $100,000 each to as many as seven applicants. One such winner was the Rankin Rock Hockey Camp, which received $80,000 to train youth coaches and promote physical activity in several Nunavut communities.

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A half-million dollars was awarded to a project that pairs youth with elders and experienced hunters in order to promote self-esteem and leadership and share traditional Inuit knowledge. Another $500,000 went to “Our Families, Our Way: The Peacemaking Circle,” a program to train community members in Yukon to use peacemaking circles to work through trauma.

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The prize’s charitable trust is overseen by trustees from the north. Regional groups vet applications, which go on to a 12-person national selection committee made up of former northern premiers, presidents, chiefs and other northern dignitaries and youth.

Witzig said he learned about the importance of leverage during his time as an architect and entrepreneur and is grateful for the prize partners who help sustain the fund, including federal, territorial and Indigenous governments, northern businesses and the Rideau Hall Foundation, led by former governor general David Johnston.

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Witzig grew up on a small farm in Switzerland and made his money launching architecture firms in Europe. He said his experience climbing the highest mountains on each continent and skiing to both the North and South Pole gave him an enduring respect for the people of Canada’s north.

“That somehow developed a really deep understanding and appreciation of the knowledge and skills and resilience the northern Indigenous people really, really needed to have – and still have – not only in order to survive but to thrive,” he said.

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Watching the program’s success over the past seven years convinced him to donate most of his remaining money.

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“It’s really all we have,” Witzig said, adding that the couple’s adult children support the decision.

“Lucky for us, they still like us,” he added, with a laugh.

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