A smiling older man standing beside a 'green wall'

West Coast multimillionaires gift land for parks and donate remainder of their fortune to philanthropy

Editor’s note: Scientists from the Hakai Institute have played a prominent role on Cortes Island, often in partnership with local organizations like the Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI), or Cortes Island Academy. They have also been frequently interviewed by local media like Folk U, Rochelle Baker of the National Observer and Cortes Currents.

Canada’s National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When multimillionaires Eric Peterson and his wife Christina Munck launched their charity foundation more than two decades ago, the couple pledged to go to their deaths flat broke.

On Wednesday, Peterson and Munck made good on that longtime vow, gifting a chunk of pristine island coastline to the BC Parks Foundation and the bulk of their remaining fortune to the Hakai Institute and the Tula Foundation, which the pair created to leverage science and technology to tackle issues for the public good.

The couple gifted the 55 acres of land on Calvert Island at the heart of the remote Central Coast to the BC Parks Foundation at the unveiling of their charity’s newest headquarters in the historic Old Victoria Customs House on Wharf Street. 

The land, which includes Calvert Island’s iconic North Beach and West Beach shorelines, will be added to the Hakai Lúxvbálís Conservancy, established and co-managed by the province and the Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv First Nations since 2008. 

Calvert Island is a sacred place with a long history for the Indigenous people who have populated the coastal region for upwards of 13,000 years, Peterson said. The location is also a biodiversity hot spot that supports an infinite variety of marine life and animals, including coastal wolves and sandhill cranes.

The couple also emptied their personal accounts to make a final legacy grant of $92 million to sustain the future evolution and growth of the Tula Foundation and the work of the charity’s two primary divisions. 

The cash infusion will support the B.C.-based Hakai Institute, which is focused on ecological research, education and collaboration with coastal communities. The charity also works overseas through the TulaSalud initiative that develops health programs to address poverty and inequality experienced by rural communities in Central America. 

The foundation first purchased a former fishing lodge and 200 acres on Calvert Island in 2009 to establish the Hakai Institute as an education and conservation hub to conduct long-term ecological and collaborative coastal research.

Since then, Hakai has expanded to include a Quadra Island research station, which is also home to the collaboration centre for the United Nations’ Ocean Decade project on the Northwest Pacific Coast, along with new offices in Campbell River, Vancouver and Victoria. 

The research centre, fieldwork and discussions around the dinner table on Calvert Island have nourished remarkable collaborations, along with a generation of scientists, and resulted in a multitude of critical studies on B.C.’s coastal ecosystem, said Brian Starzomski, a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. 

“It’s been scientifically relevant on a global scale and deeply and personally relevant for people in communities all up and down the coast who have benefited from so many of the solutions that come out of there,” Starzomski said. 

“It’s not too much to say that Hakai and Tula have fundamentally changed the scientific landscape in B.C.” 

However, the couple never intended Tula to operate as a “private landholder,” Peterson told Canada’s National Observer. 

The land being donated to BC Parks is already being used as a de facto part of the pre-existing conservancy on Calvert Island since the science institute was established, he said. 

Additionally, the BC Parks donation is just a first step in ensuring the Hakai Institute and Tula Foundation can continue to make a difference beyond the lifetime of its founders, said Peterson, who also insists he’s not planning on dying any time soon. 

This summer, discussions are being planned with multiple partners, levels of governments, First Nations and other potential donors to shape a long-term vision for the remaining land and the Hakai research facility on Calvert Island so it can continue to serve the public moving forward, he said. 

The foundation’s work, both in Canada and overseas, is centred around the philosophy of accompaniment, which intertwines knowledge and ethics with community collaboration to make positive, place-based changes that have ripple effects regionally and even globally, he said. 

“Accompaniment translates into being involved for the long term, looking at things from all aspects and getting involved in a respectful way with everyone who has a stake in the outcome,” Peterson said. 

“We always try to leave something better than we found it.” 

The couple’s original decision to blow their fortune to do good came out of a conversation with an old Air Force pilot named Jeff who was involved in the first project the pair backed after selling their successful medical imaging company for a hefty sum in 2001, Peterson said. 

At the request of Peterson’s father, Tula’s inaugural donation went towards restoring an old Halifax bomber — the same model his dad piloted during the Second World War. 

At the reception event, Peterson was discussing his fledgling foundation with Jeff, who recommended the couple follow his plan of action — die penniless even if it meant bouncing the check to the undertaker. 

“One thing, you gotta make damn sure you spend the money,” Jeff reportedly told Peterson.

“Cuz you’re gonna feel like an idiot if you die and you’ve got a bunch of money in the bank.” 

Peterson also jokes he can hardly start advocating for other people, groups or organizations to help continue the Tula Foundation’s good work for years to come if he’s still got cash in his pocket. 

“If I’m a rich guy living in this [fancy] house and I’m out there … saying, ‘Please give us money,’ it doesn’t really ring true, does it?” he said. 

“Now I can say: We’ve given all our money. Who’s going to join me in supporting this amazing organization we all want to sustain?” 

Links of Interest:

Top of page: When Eric Peterson (in feature image) and his wife Christina Munck launched the Tula Foundation and the Hakai Institute more than 20 years ago the couple pledged to go to their deaths flat broke. – Photo courtesy Rochelle Baker

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: