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Celebrating Excellence in Northern Recreation: A Brief History of the NWTRPA Awards Program

At one of the first NWTRPA board meetings in the fall of 1989, the newly elected directors discussed priorities for the fledgling organization. In addition to a membership committee, a conference/AGM committee, a fundraising committee, and a communications committee, the final list included an awards committee, and with good reason. What better way to raise the profile of the new organization, recognize the achievements of recreation professionals and celebrate the benefits of recreation and parks than through an awards program, which would also, the board hoped, attract new members to the NWTRPA.

At that same meeting, the board brainstormed possible awards, including a volunteer recognition award, a facilities excellence award, and a recreation/parks-focused award, but ultimately tasked the committee, headed by Chris Szabo, with developing a list of awards and criteria for the next meeting.

Chris, who was at that time the Recreation Coordinator in Cambridge Bay, spent the winter familiarizing himself with the awards programs of the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CRPA) and other provincial recreation organizations. Based on this research, he proposed six categories of awards: honorary life membership, award of merit, certificates of appreciation, community achievement awards (based on 3 categories of population size), facility excellence, and student award. While the board was supportive of Chris’ proposal (as were the members when it was presented to them at the AGM), following consultations with the CPRA in April 1990, the NWTRPA decided to adopt a “gradual implementation” of the awards.

Chris Szabo was a long-time member and supporter of the NWTRPA. He was granted a Honourary Life Membership in 2003. In 2015, his commitment to recreation was recognized by the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association with a CPRA Award of Merit. Chris passed away in 2017.

In early 1991, the NWTRPA began publicizing the awards programs in NewsNorth, Nunatsiaq News, and the Native Press. Nomination forms were also circulated to members. Later that year, the NWTRPA handed out its first two awards. Dennis Adams of Yellowknife was the inaugural recipient of the Award of Merit, which honoured “individuals or groups who have significantly contributed to the Northwest Territories Recreation and Parks Association and/or Recreation and/or Parks development in the NWT.” Holman, which we now know as Ulukhaktok, was recognized with the Community Active Living Award, which recognized a community that “demonstrated commitment to providing Active Living opportunities to its residents.”

New awards for recreation facilities and student leadership were added in 1992 and 1993, respectively. The Facility Excellence Award, which honoured “individuals who have demonstrated excellence in the maintenance and operation of recreation facilities,” was given to Raymond Bonnetrouge of Fort Providence at the conference in Hay River. At the same ceremony, Peter Greenland of Inuvik was honoured with the Student Leadership Award, which recognized an NWT student who “made a significant contribution to recreation and park services through their volunteer activities, work experience, and studies.” For much of its life—the Student Leadership Award was last handed out in 2006 to Colinda Blondin of Behchokǫ̀—the award went to a student in the second year of the Recreation Leaders Program at Arctic College (later Aurora College).

The awards ceremony at the 1995 conference in Rankin Inlet was a little longer still. That year, the NWTRPA named its first Honourary Life Member, Dennis Adams. Honourary Life Memberships are occasional awards that recognize NWTRPA members for their service to the organization and to the fields of recreation and parks. Initially, they were meant to recognize individuals with a minimum 10 years of service. In 2011, that was extended to 20 years of service. The NWTRPA has only handed out ten life memberships since 1995. In addition to Dennis Adams, recipients include Peggy Curtis (1996), Gordon Johnston (1999), Ian Legaree (2001), Chris Szabo (2003), Roslyn Smith (2005), Max Hall (2007), Theresa Ross (2010), Julian Tomlinson (2011), and Juneva Green (2014).

Another new addition to the awards program in 1995 was the Recreation Leader Award, which recognized “community recreation leaders who consistently demonstrate the professionalism, skills, and qualities outlined in the Recreation Code of Ethics.” This award had previously been administered by the Sport and Recreation Division of MACA. As occasionally happens, the first Recreation Leader Award was shared between Tausia Katu’u Lal, the long-standing Recreation Coordinator in Fort Resolution, and Dawn Currie, then the Recreation Coordinator in Cambridge Bay.

1995 was also the first time the NWTRPA recognized a community or individual for environmental leadership with the Elaine Burke Environment Award. I asked around the NWTRPA and no one knew who Elaine Burke was and fair enough. She is not from the NWT. In the mid-1990s, the NWTRPA became involved with the Active Living Environment Program (ALEP), a national funding initiative that supported community-designed and -led initiatives that linked active living and environmental citizenship. In addition to providing communities and organizations with small grants, beginning in 1994, ALEP gave out an award to recognize Canadian municipalities, community groups, schools, and school-based organizations for outstanding achievements in active living and environmental citizenship. The award was named in honour of Elaine Burke, a founder of the Active Living – Go for Green! Movement, who passed away in 1993. Recipients of the Elaine Burke Award were given a plaque and a “living gift,” seedlings planted by Tree Plan Canada.

The following year, another award was added to the roster that highlighted an often overlooked part of the NWTRPA name and mandate. The Parks Leadership Award recognized “individuals or groups for their significant contribution to the development and promotion of parks.” The inaugural recipient was Dave Monteith of Iqaluit. Monteith, then the supervisor of parks and visitors services for the Baffin Region, played an important role in the development of Quammaarviit Historic Park, Kekerten Island Historic Park, Katannikik Park, and the Angmarlik Centre in Pangnirtung.

There was no awards ceremony in 1998. It was a difficult year for the NWTRPA and the northern recreation sector. If the 1980s were characterized by significant investments in recreation in the NWT, the 1990s were a period of austerity. The Sport and Recreation Division of MACA declined from 15 staff members in 1990 to 2 in 1997. At that time, the NWTRPA was heavily dependent on government funding, which left the organization “floundering” to borrow from Vicky Paraschak. Access to lotteries funding beginning in 1999 provided some much needed stability to the organization.

The roster of awards did not change again until 2001, when the NWTRPA board created a new prize to honour the memory of Scott McAdam, who died suddenly while serving as the organization’s president. Janet Wong of Yellowknife was the first recipient of the Scott McAdam Youth Leadership Award, which recognizes youth contributions to recreation and parks.

The NWTRPA periodically reviews the awards program to ensure that it remains relevant to the sector, but also aligns with the current vision and strategic goals of the association. Following a 2006 review, for instance, the board decided to combine the Elaine Burke Environment Award and the Parks Leadership Award to become the Parks and Environmental Leadership Award. The new award recognized a “community, organization, or individual who has demonstrated positive leadership through the development or promotion of trails, parks, or green-spaces” or “leadership in the areas of outdoor or environmental education, research, or advocacy.” The first recipient was Steve Nicoll, a teacher in Fort Simpson who worked with his students to develop a local trail system.

The awards program was overhauled in 2011 based on the outcomes of another internal review. With the exception of the Scott McAdam Youth Leadership Award and the Honorary Life Member category, all other awards were dissolved and two new awards created: the Award of Excellence and the Innovation Award. The former “recognizes an individual, organization, or community that significantly contributes to recreation and parks development in the NWT,” while the latter “recognizes a community, organization, or individual in the NWT that has developed a new program, facility or approach to recreation and parks services.” The inaugural Award of Excellence highlighted the contributions of Lois Philipp, the longtime principal of the Déh Gah School in Fort Providence. The first Innovation Award was jointly awarded to the Tłı̨chǫ Government for the Įmbè Program and to Cynthia Wicks for the Inuvik Run Club.

In 2013, the NWTRPA handed out the inaugural Active Elder Award during the second Elders in Motion Training Gathering. The two octogenarian recipients, Violet Beaulieu of Fort Resolution and Gabriel Kochon of Fort Good Hope, were celebrated for being role models in their communities. Since 2016, the Active Elder Award has been part of the regular awards ceremony at the NWTRPA Conference.

The most recent addition to the awards program is the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA) Award of Merit, which recognizes “an individual, organization, community, or business for outstanding achievement” that contributes to “the advancement of recreation and parks territorially and/or nationally.” The inaugural recipient of the CRPA Award of Merit was Shane Thompson of Fort Simpson in 2015.


The NWTRPA accepts nominations for the awards program annually. For more information about current awards and nomination guidelines, visit


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