For over a month, only the two leaders of Arctic FOXY knew their million-dollar idea had been officially validated in the form of a cash prize for that exact amount, and were tasked with keeping the massive secret.
The organization was given the $1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize to go towards funding its groundbreaking sexual health project for Northern girls in a ceremony last week in Ottawa, where the rest of the group was positively ecstatic at the news.
“They called me three and a half weeks ago so I’ve known since then and it’s been absolute torture,” said Candice Lys, one of the project’s co-founders. “We brought 13 team members and we really wanted them to be surprised and we managed to do it. The looks on their faces were just priceless; it was totally worth it.”
For several years, the team at Arctic FOXY (Fostering Open eXpression among Youth) has been empowering young women to learn about sexuality and ways to create healthy relationships, while allowing and encouraging them to explore their own identities through artistic endeavours.
Lys said the prize money will go to a mixture of short and long-term projects, including program expansion to youth of all genders in all three territories, followed by extensive participant evaluations to better understand FOXY’s lasting impacts.
“This will help us have the core operations for FOXY and to be able to just do the programming that we need to do in the high quality calibre that we want to do it,” Lys said. “We’ve gotten a tonne of recognition for this and so I really feel like it’s kind of the catalyst to help us leverage further funding.”
All of FOXY’s work is conducted through traveling workshops and an annual summer retreat at Blachford Lake Lodge. In the last year, the group was accredited by the GNWT to actually give their “peer leaders” (the youth who attend the camp) up to four high school credits.
Health and Social Services employee Kyla Kakfwi-Scott, along with Dechinta bush university founder Erin Freeland-Ballantyne, represented the NWT on the prize selection committee.
“We’re both familiar with the project…and know what great work they’re doing and how impactful it’s been in such a short amount of time,” Kakfwi-Scott said. “Anyone who has had interaction with that program speaks very highly of it. The only criticism that I’ve ever heard is that it would be great if they could be reaching out to more communities and if they could be offering programming for boys as well because there’s also such a need there. That’s exactly what their project proposal set out to do.”
Kakfwi-Scott said she supported the project throughout the selection process, though it didn’t take much to persuade her fellow judges. The pick was unanimous – a first in the history of the award.
“You really need to not only collect data and collect knowledge and just do what you’re already doing, but you need to really propose a very concrete plan to take this knowledge into action,” said Martin Fortier, executive director of ArcticNet, the organization behind the award. “In the case of FOXY, they had a very successful program already. At the end of the day the application was very well written, all the aspects were covered, so it kind of came up top.”
The award presentation came after a concert filled with Northern acts including recent Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, along with Celina Kalluk, Sylvia Cloutier and Digawolf.
“It was incredibly moving to be there and to see the excitement,” Kakfwi-Scott said. “To hear all of them speak so passionately about it, it was really beautiful…and powerful. I’ve heard that from lots of people who were there for the show who were from different regions.”
The day following their whirlwind win, FOXY was also honoured at Parliament Hill.
“At the end of question period, it was announced in the House of Commons who we were and that we won the million dollars,” Lys said. “Then all of the parliamentarians jumped up out of their seats and gave us a standing ovation, which was really amazing.”
The annual award is provided by Arctic Inspiration Prize founders Arnold Witzig and Sima Sharifi and is dedicated to organizations working in the Canadian Arctic on education, human health, social-cultural issues, the environment and the economy. In addition to the funds, FOXY was gifted a sculpture by Ivujivik artist Mattiusi Iyaituk.