Yukon peacemaking circle, forest school bring home Arctic Inspiration Prize money

'It's a continuation process of what our ancestors started long long ago ... this is bringing us back to where we were, so that's why we call it 'Our Families, Our Way.'

Peacemaking circle initiative and forest school project bring home big cheques

Yukon's 'Our Families, Our Way' uses peacemaking circles to help communities address conflict and trauma. The organization was among the winners of this year's Arctic Inspiration Prize. (Arctic Inspiration Prize)

Beverly Sembsmoen says she's "thrilled" with her team's Arctic Inspiration Prize win, saying it will allow them to continue trying to "rebuild the families."

"The families are truly the foundation of our First Nation," she said.

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation group was awarded a $500,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize on Wednesday, to continue its work organizing peacemaking circles, to address conflict and family issues.

"We didn't think we should apply for the million dollar prize, and we reached out for the half-mil and we got it," Sembsmoen said.

"It kind of opens the doors and allows other people to see the value of our project, and hopefully that will open other funding opportunities so we can make this program self-sustaining."

Representatives from 'Our Families, Our Way', with a number of Yukon dignitaries, accept their $500,000 prize at a ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Arctic Inspiration Prize)

The peacemaking circle initiative started as a pilot project, for community members, teachers, and government employees. The new funding will allow the group to expand it and expose more people to the practice and skills involved.

Lori Duncan, the team leader, says it's part of revitalizing Indigenous communities and traditions.

"It's a continuation process of what our ancestors started long long ago," she said. "This is bringing us back to where we were, so that's why we call it 'Our Families, Our Way.'"

$100K for forest school program

The peacemaking circle wasn't the only Yukon initiative to get a piece of the Arctic Inspiration Prize money.

Whitehorse-based Rivers to Ridges won in the youth category, receiving $100,000 to help launch a forest school program for pre-schoolers.

"It felt amazing, and both Erin and I feel deeply humbled to have been on that stage," said Emily Payne, who leads the initiative along with Erin Nicolardi.

Forest schools use outdoor education and land-based programming, to encourage kids to feel more connected to their environment. 

Whitehorse-based Rivers to Ridges delivers outdoor, land-based programs to children and families. (Arctic Inspiration Prize)

"There's a lot of research that shows that children that connect with the land meaningfully at a young age develop a deeper sense of resiliency," said Nicolardi.

She says the forest school concept is not new, but the Rivers to Ridges program may be unique in how it will involve First Nations elders, and draw on Indigenous culture and teachings. 

"It's imperative for us to meaningfully integrate elders and knowledge-keepers into the programming that we offer, and also to allow that knowledge to guide the direction of the programming," Nicolardi said.

The goal is to have the program running by the fall, and that it will be inclusive and affordable, Payne says.

"We do intend to operate as a social enterprise, to keep the program as accessible as possible for all families, First Nations and non-First Nations, to come together — so that environmental and social mission is at the heart of our organization," Payne said.

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis with Erin Nicolardi, Emily Payne and Remy Rodden of Rivers to Ridges, and a $100,000 cheque to develop a forest school program for preschoolers. (Arctic Inspiration Prize)

Whitehorse to host next year

There was another Yukon winner announced at the Ottawa ceremony, but there was no cheque involved. The City of Whitehorse was announced as the host of next year's Arctic Inspiration Prize event. 

It will be the first time the event has been held in the North.

Mayor Dan Curtis calls it "an extreme privilege".

"I know that we're the envy of the entire Arctic and all of Canada — to think that we'll be able to showcase what we have," he said.

Curtis was at the Ottawa gala on Wednesday and figures there were about 1,000 people there. he's not sure whether that many would make their way to Whitehorse, but still expects it to be a major event.

"It's going to be a huge, huge, huge event for the Yukon ... I'm fully anticipating it's going to be at capacity, I'm sure — whatever capacity that Whitehorse and the Yukon can facilitate."

With files from Leonard Linklater and Dave Croft