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The 11th annual Arctic Inspiration Prize was awarded at a ceremony in Ottawa celebrating Indigenous excellence, resilience and innovation, with $3 million in funding presented to community organizations.

The Arctic laureates were spread across three categories. In total, more than seven projects dedicated to mental health, youth education and Indigenous history, among other topics, received funding to increase their capacity and develop their reach across the territories.

Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse, Yukon, was named a youth laureate during the ceremony and awarded $500,000 to develop the N’’tsaÜw Chu’ Kedts’edán Kù Traditional Camp, which will create an in-depth program to help students learn ancestral knowledge while receiving their education in Whitehorse.

Meanwhile, Arlyn Charlie and Myrna Pokiak are both members of Lessons of Our Elders, a program designed to connect youth with historic artifacts cited in Elders’ stories that was named a laureate within the Arctic Inspiration Prize award category.

The project is a collaboration between the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Inuvialuit, which were historically warring peoples pre-European contact, Pokiak said.

“The beauty of it now is working together,” Pokiak said.

The project will use technology to bring museum artifacts to remote regions virtually and through the use of 3D imaging. It’s essential for people to understand their history and how it is embedded in their identities so they can understand where they come from, particularly as Indigenous Peoples, Charlie said.

“Our identity is a complex idea,” he added. Part of that complexity is the “idealism of humility.” When the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit interacted with Europeans during first contact, Charlie said, there was a humility in helping those early colonizers survive the harsh, sometimes dangerous, terrain of the North. Historical artifacts and Elders’ stories tell that history, he explained.

“Starting from the time of contact (between) our people and the early colonizers, our stories will tell the stories of those first encounters,” he said.

“It’s so honouring and humbling — this team is totally deserving and totally worthy of such a prize," Adriana Kusugak, the executive director of the Pilimmaksaijuliriniq project, said after her organization won the $1-million dollar grand prize.

Unfortunately, the history of colonization continues. The 3D imagery will be used to produce virtual renderings of artifacts that cannot be brought back North because they are housed in museums elsewhere in Ottawa, Scotland and Rome.

“The idea is to hear the traditional stories, pull out the artifacts we can visualize to illustrate the stories and bring them to life,” Pokiak said.

Adriana Kusugak is the executive director of the Pilimmaksaijuliriniq project, the winner of the $1-million prize. The Pilimmaksaijuliriniq project is a mental health and wellness endeavour that seeks to train and build capacity for resilience across the four regions of Inuit Nunangat, which stretches from the Northwest Territories across Quebec and into Labrador.

It was developed out of the Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy, the Inuusivut Anninaqtuq Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy and the Alianait Inuit Mental Wellness Action Plan, according to the AIP website.

The prize money is validation, accomplishment and a promise for what is to come, Kusugak said in an interview. The team is ready to take their project “on the road” throughout Inuit Nunangat, she said with a laugh of joy, struggling to find the next words.

“It’s so honouring and humbling — this team is totally deserving and totally worthy of such a prize.”

The project has found a way to deliver community-based programs grounded in Inuit culture, mental health practices and approaches to empower those on the front lines today.

Kusugak hopes the training provided to front-line workers will help curb burnout and inspire them to build resilience for a long time.

“[It’s] a very heart-centred approach, meeting people where they’re at,” she said.

Other laureates included a youth-focused creative agency in Nunavut, a recovery support program in the Yukon and a new research governance program organization to advance Nunavik Inuit self-determination, among others.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative