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$92-million gift from Eric Peterson and Christina Munck launches a new scientific research institution
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$92-million gift from Eric Peterson and Christina Munck launches a new scientific research institution

Since selling his privately-owned medical imaging company for roughly $300-million in 2001, Eric Peterson has been methodically spending his share of the proceeds.

He’s used his money to buy B.C. coastal properties so they can be put aside for conservation; to launch the Hakai Institute, a scientific research institution; and to set up the Tula Foundation, a non-profit foundation named for a one-time family dog.

Most recently that pattern continued as Mr. Peterson – with his wife and foundation co-founder Christina Munck – donated $92-million to the Tula Foundation, a step designed to secure the non-profit’s future and help the couple continue their mission of turning their own good fortune into a windfall for the world, especially its beleaguered oceans.

“Increasingly, we’re feeling: It isn’t about us,” Mr. Peterson said in an interview.

“We feel a responsibility to say, ‘Can we sustain what we’re doing into the future?’ And when I say sustain, I don’t mean, ‘Let’s keep doing everything we’re doing.’ What I want to sustain is that continued vitality – to keep building on what we have done, to keep coming up with new ideas.”

The donation amounts to a relatively rare public splash for Mr. Peterson and Ms. Munck, who established the Tula Foundation in 2001.

Since then, Tula has grown into its own version of a multitentacled sea creature, with handholds in media (through Hakai Magazine and as one-time owner of The Tyee, now a non-profit); health care and social development (through TulaSalud, a foundation arm that operates in Guatemala); and science, through the Hakai Institute, a research institution with a coastal focus that extends to sea creatures large and small, watersheds and a cryosphere node, to study frozen water in the form of glaciers and snowpacks, at the University of Northern British Columbia.

The couple’s support, especially through a research centre on Calvert Island, has been “completely transformative” for coastal research in B.C., said Brian Starzomski, an environmental studies professor at the University of Victoria.

Researchers from different disciplines who came to Calvert Island, about 100 kilometres from the northern tip of Vancouver Island, would find themselves talking over breakfast or on the beach, and wind up chasing new ideas, he said, speaking at a news conference in Victoria.

“So many scientific collaborations started over those meals,” he said.

The Hakai Institute base on Calvert Island is a former fishing resort that Mr. Peterson and Ms. Munck acquired in 2009. At that time, the couple were working with conservation groups to buy coastal sites and were also looking for a base that could provide visiting scientists with accommodation, communication networks and, as it turned out, breathtakingly beautiful surroundings.

One of their first goals after buying the lodge was to mend fences with neighbouring First Nations, boaters and government agencies that had clashed with the previous owner over restrictions to public access on the island. The lodge came with several parcels of land, two of which, comprising 55 acres, Tula on said it had transferred to the the B.C. Parks Foundation to be wrapped into the Hakai Lúxvbálís Conservancy.

That conservancy takes in more than 1,200 square kilometres of land and sea, and it is managed under an agreement between the Heiltsuk Nation and the Province of British Columbia.

The sites had been essentially functioning as parks since the Hakai Institute took over the resort, but the official donation means the properties will be protected “in perpetuity,” said B.C. Parks Foundation chief executive officer Andrew Day.

The sites are emblematic of the rich biodiversity in the region, Mr. Day said, calling Mr. Peterson and Ms. Munck “complete unicorns” for their commitment to the public good.

The former fishing lodge and the property it sits on remain with Tula, but Mr. Peterson said he’s having conversations with partners aimed at ensuring its long-term future.

Ms. Munck recalled an early gathering at the Hakai Institute, to which she and Mr. Peterson had invited members of nearby Indigenous guardian programs. The septic system failed, but the gathering was still a success, leading to relationships that have resulted in drone-assisted mapping of seagrasses and kelp beds and other coastal observatory work, Ms. Munck said.

Tula has also quietly played a role in Canadian law. Calvin Sandborn, former legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, recalled getting an e-mail from Mr. Peterson asking him how much money the centre would need to meet its goals. Mr. Sandborn put together a proposal that suggested $1-million over five years; Mr. Peterson and Ms. Munck ended up funding the centre for 10 years.

Hundreds of students have since gone through ELC clinics, with many going on to work with environmental law firms, Mr. Sandborn said.

The new $92-million donation, along with financial support for Tula over the past two decades, will essentially empty the pot of gold created when his company, Mitra, was sold, Mr. Peterson said. Once bashful about fundraising, he said the donation will also free him up to suggest that other wealthy people could follow his and Ms. Munck’s lead.

“We gave away all our money,” he said. “And now, I don’t feel at all inhibited in saying we would really appreciate having others join us in donating and supporting this worthy effort.”

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