A Northwest Territories project to improve the mental health of vulnerable Indigenous people has won $1 million in funding from the Arctic Inspiration Prize.

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project was the big winner at Wednesday night’s ceremony, inside Ottawa’s Shaw Centre. NWT Premier Bob McLeod presented the award.

“We are going to make a big difference in the North,” said Sahtu Dene Elder Be’sha Blondin, accepting the award.

“We will have a brighter future.”

Earlier in the evening, a youth-led project to create Dene Heroes books for Sahtu communities received $100,000 in funding.

Wednesday’s ceremony focused on 10 shortlisted projects from across Canada’s territories. Both finalists in the showpiece $1 million category came from the Northwest Territories.

The Arctic Indigenous Wellness Project will “combine Indigenous cultural education with traditional therapeutic interventions in a wilderness urban setting,” according to a summary provided by organizers.

The project hopes to help Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene, and Métis people who are at risk of suicide, jail time, or both, on the territory’s streets.

“We decided to organize it in a circle so that we can be able to all work together in the Arctic,” said Blondin. “So that we can be the best that we can be for the future.”

Yellowknife naturopath Nicole Redvers is the project’s team leader.

Speaking to the Globe and Mail newspaper, Redvers said: “We’re one of the last places in Canada actually, in addition to Nunavut, where there’s not a place where Indigenous people can gather and have their culture represented.

Redvers and her colleagues want to create a physical space, with tents, to provide a sanctuary for Indigenous people on the streets. The space would allow people to immerse themselves in Indigenous culture and language revitalization, while offering services such as counselling and learning opportunities.

“We’re bringing the land to them, but at the same time we’re providing some of this on-the-land programming which we would only [otherwise] be able to do if we brought people out of the city boundaries,” Redvers told the Globe and Mail.

The book aims to inspire Indigenous students, community members, and out-of-school youth to write about someone they admire of Dene descent with contributors interviewing elders, talking about heroic qualities, writing about their heroes, taking photographs, drawing pictures, and reading what others have written. Partnering with schools, community members can contribute their ideas, stories and pictures to be published in the book that would be distributed to all contributors at a celebration in each community
Dakota Orlias, from Colville Lake, accepts a $100,000 award at the 2017 Arctic Inspiration Prize ceremony.

“We’re hoping that it will be an example to many other areas in Canada.”

‘Giving Dene a voice’

Hay River resident Jackie Milne’s From-the-Land Food Ambassadors Program missed out on the grand prize.  Milne’s project aims to stimulate more food production in NWT communities through distance education and hands-on training.

In a newly formed youth category, Colville Lake’s Dakota Orlias accepted $100,000 from the Arctic Inspiration Prize fund to help publish books about Dene heroes for distribution among Sahtu communities.

“My heroes are the Dene people of the Sahtu, and this book honours the Dene people of the past, present, and future,” Orlias told the audience.

“The funds from this award will help me and my team publish books like this, giving Dene people a voice and a place in Canadian literature.”

The books produced by the Dene Heroes team are designed to inspire Indigenous youth to write about people they admire of Dene descent.