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Paying-it-forward through the Nature Inspiration Awards

Ander Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium


The Campobello Whale Rescue Team frees a North Atlantic right whale from a fishing net.


By Kristy Jones
April 6, 2021

A tool to free whales from nets, enclosures for orphaned and injured racoons, and the restoration of historic woodlands – these are some of the tangible outcomes of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Nature Inspiration Awards.

Now in its eighth year, this program honours outstanding and innovative nature-focused projects by youths, adults, not-for-profits, and businesses. The winners each receive a $5,000 award, which they then donate to a deserving nature-themed organization of their choice.

Here is a look at how some of the 2020 award winners “paid-it-forward”, each contributing in their own way to a more sustainable future.  

Tracey Caplin © Tracey Caplin.


Sophia Spencer presents a cheque to Jacqueline Smith, Special Events Coordinator at Heaven’s Wildlife Rescue.

Sophia Spencer, Sarnia, Ontario – 2020 Youth Award

At nine, Sophia Spencer co-wrote the book “The Bug Girl” with author Margaret McNamara. It inspires young girls to pursue their passions. For Sophia, that was insects. She considered donating her prize money to a pollinator conservation group, but chose a wildlife rescue group near her home community because of its decisive plans for the funds and the organisation’s reliance on donations to operate. Sophia’s donation is the largest it has ever received.  

Heaven’s Wildlife Rescue, Rehabilitation and Education Centre in Oil Springs, Ontario, cares for orphaned, injured and displaced animals. Sophia first heard of them when they visited her school. She contacted them for aid when she found an injured squirrel outside her home.

With the Nature Inspiration Award money, the rescue organisation intends to expand its raccoon enclosures.

International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFC), Chester, Nova Scotia – 2020 Small to Medium Not-for Profit Award

The ICFC is a Canadian charity that has been funding conservation projects in Latin America, Africa and Asia since 2007. It looks to include local communities in hands-on, science-based environmental work. As a rule, they don’t generally fund projects in North America.

This year, the ICFC made an exception and donated all $5,000 of its prize to the Canadian Whale Institute, specifically the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in New Brunswick.

When first formed in 2002, the rescue team was comprised of volunteer fishermen and biologists who saved North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear. In 2014, the team came under the umbrella of the Canadian Whale Institute. Now, participating in the rescue team is a year-long commitment and, as of 2018, members are paid. They cover all of the Atlantic provinces except for Newfoundland.

The funds are being used develop a serrated tool attached to a pole that will quickly and safely saw through the thick fishing nets that are known to entangle the whales. The team has enlisted the help of a mechanical engineer, who is volunteering his time.

The need for a stronger presence, proper funding and proper training for the whale rescue team became truly evident in 2017 when 12 dead right whales were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence—victims of ship collisions and gear entanglement. Five more right whales were entangled in nets, still alive.

Gary Schneider, Stratford, Prince Edward Island – Adult Award  

Gary Schneider founded the MacPhail Woods Ecology Forestry Project in September 1991 as a response to deforestation in Prince Edward Island. The goal of the project is the restoration of historic woodlands. In September 1991, he was hired to create a trail on the MacPhail Homestead property. He entered into an informal partnership with the homestead and began to restore the woods.

As part of his initiative, Schneider organizes nature camps, trail walks and education programs on the restored land.

Schneider chose to donate his prize winnings to the MacPhail Foundation, which recently received a 100-acre land donation from its next-door neighbours. The Foundation is using the money to help restore the new land.

These inspiring stories from remarkable nature enthusiasts and conservationists remind us of the need to get involved and to help preserve the natural world. Feeling inspired? Know a deserving group or individual? Click here for more information on the 2021 Call for Nominations.