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Vancouver couple donate $60-million to esteemed Arctic Inspiration Prize

Sima Sharifi and husband Arnold Witzig, seen in this 2012 file photo, announced Jan. 31, 2018 that they will give $60-million to the Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP).

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A philanthropic couple from Vancouver has donated their entire fortune to support the longevity of an esteemed Arctic research award.

Sima Sharifi and husband Arnold Witzig announced Wednesday that they will give $60-million to the Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP). The couple, in their 60s, founded the prize in 2012 after falling in love with Canada's North and have since financed annual awards – which now total $3-million a year – that support teams of Arctic researchers. Their new donation ensures the sustainability of the prize long into the future.

"We wanted to inspire, enable and somehow celebrate all these achievements of the people in the North," Mr. Witzig said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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"Without having grassroots and youth really participate and come forward with their own ideas, you can try as much as you want as a government, it won't work. Here, we thought the prize could step in and really contribute."

The prize gives groups of Arctic researchers financial support to study opportunities or challenges for the Canadian Arctic, including educational, health, environmental and economic issues. The prize, which awards multiple teams from $100,000 to $1-million, was established in 2012 by Mr. Witzig and Ms. Sharifi. The 2018 laureates were recognized Wednesday night at an AIP awards ceremony in Ottawa, where the organization also unveiled its new $60-million donation.

Kevin Kablutsiak, a 2013 laureate who is now executive director of the AIP, said the evolution of the prize over only a matter of years is "tremendous."

"From my own perspective, being Inuk from Canada, from the Arctic, and seeing Arnold and Sima being so generous and giving of everything they have to the Arctic, it's really hard to fully say and express the gratitude that I feel and that many of us feel," said Mr. Kablutsiak.

"Some of these projects that have won would normally never get any kind of money that they get from AIP from elsewhere."

Mr. Witzig and Ms. Sharifi's fascination with the Arctic stems from the early days of their relationship. The couple met online shortly after Mr. Witzig, a Swiss architect, sold his European business and immigrated to Canada in 1999. They took one of their first trips as a couple to Iqaluit, where they took part in North Pole expedition training.

Ms. Sharifi, who came to Vancouver in 1986 as a refugee from Iran, felt immediately connected to the Indigenous peoples of the North. Having faced discrimination as a member of an ethnic minority in Iran, she understood the struggles of Canada's Indigenous peoples.

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"When I am among the Indigenous peoples, I feel as if I am at home," said Ms. Sharifi.

In the years to come, the couple spent more time exploring the Arctic. Mr. Witzig skied the polar regions while his wife completed her PhD in translation studies at the University of Ottawa. They eventually felt the need to give back to the land and people they had grown to love so much.

In 2011, they approached ArcticNet, a collection of more than 150 researchers from more than 30 Canadian universities, with a proposal: to develop a prize for Arctic researchers. The AIP was launched in 2012 and has since garnered the support of territorial governments, Indigenous organizations and corporations. The AIP eventually partnered with the Rideau Hall Foundation, which agreed to cover all the operational costs associated with the prize so that 100 per cent of the AIP trust fund could go to the prize.

Mr. Witzig and Ms. Sharifi have transferred all of their investments to the AIP trust and willed their property assets to the prize. A team of financial managers will invest the money accordingly and seek new support so the prize can continue to thrive.

For the husband-and-wife duo, the key to the prize's success over the past six years was more about earning the respect of the North, as opposed to the money.

"It's not the money that is now the big thing, trust is the big thing. It's this relationship, this working together, the fact that these values and principles have been accepted and believed," Ms. Sharifi.

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Natan Obed, national Inuit leader and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said Mr. Witzig and Ms. Sharifi's investment enables Northerners to find their own solutions and create new opportunities.

"We know Northerners have the solutions to improve the quality of life in the Canadian North. Sima and Arnold's generosity and commitment to the North provides Northerners with financial support they need to implement their innovative projects that benefit northerners and their communities."

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