Head of Tula Foundation appointed to the order of Canada

Eric Peterson was appointed to the Order of Canada last year. Gov. Gen. David Johnston presented Peterson with the medal at Rideau Hall in early last month.

There was a time when Quadra Island’s Eric Peterson said he wouldn’t accept an appointment to the Order of Canada unless his wife, and co-founder of the Tula Foundation–Christina Munck, was nominated as well.

But last year, when he got the phone call, he was too honoured to negotiate.

“I don’t like things like that really,” he said. “I don’t like rituals… I just like to work. But I felt it was my responsibility because I’m accepting this on behalf of my wife as well but I am also accepting it on behalf of the 100 people who are working with us in the Tula Foundation on our different projects. I am only getting the award because of all of their work and dedication.”

The Order of Canada was established by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967. It recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

Peterson’s citation reads, “for his philanthropic contributions, and for his unreserved commitment to health care and the environment in remote Indigenous communities in British Columbia.”

Peterson and Munck created the Tula Foundation in 2001 after selling Mitra, Peterson’s health care technology company.

“It wasn’t just me, all my employees were share holders and everything else,” he said. “So selling the company meant a down payment on a house for some of them or buying the motorcycle they always dreamed of, or putting their kids into college.”

Suddenly they had a lot of money and no jobs to keep them busy, but they wanted to continue working on interesting projects that served the public interest. Creating a foundation was the best way for them to do that.

“People talk about us as philanthropists but I don’t really like that word,” he said. “We are people who are always doing projects, always putting together organizations, trying to get things done.”

The Tula Foundation has two primary projects.

The original project, that continues to grow today, is TulaSalud, a health organization in Guatemala. The goal of the organization is to help re-build the rural health system that was destroyed during the civil war.

“If you are taking health care into these communities it’s not just a medical task, it’s cultural, it’s linguistic, it’s all of those things,” Peterson said. “That’s where you really need to know the environment, you need to know the landscape and that’s where having a really skilled local partner is amazing.”

TulaSalud is a Guatemalan charity, which means the Tula Foundation has 40 employees on the ground in Guatemala as well as numerous partner businesses, schools and organizations.

In the beginning they started out educating nurses and community health workers but over the last 15 years they have transitioned from educating to supporting the health care workers in the area.

“A lot of that is using cellphones and mobile apps so that they can communicate with one another and so they can collect data effectively and so they can work very efficiently,” Peterson said.

TulaSalud is working with the health authorities in the area and their work has drawn both Canadian and Guatemalan government attention.This, as well as the partnership of a cellphone company in the area, has allowed for the programs to expand into other regions of Guatemala.

At the moment they are expanding the project by ten times.

The foundation’s other major project is the Hakai Institute.

While Peterson was in Guatemala getting everything going, Munck was on Quadra Island getting involved in conservation and stewardship projects in the Campbell River area, including the estuary clean-up.

“Increasingly we started working with scientists on the B.C. coast,” Peterson said.

They were giving out grants and supporting projects, but it wasn’t enough for Peterson, he was sure that they could do so much more if they got organized.

In 2009, the Tula Foundation purchased a fishing lodge on Calvert Island, in Hakai Pass. The Calvert Island Observatory is now the base of the institute’s operations in the area.

From there the employees working for the Tula Foundation are doing research about sea otters, which have recently returned to the area, as well as herring.

Tula has partnerships with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, BC Parks the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, as well as the Heiltsuk First Nation and the Wuikinuxv First Nation.

“We are very happy to work with the First Nations,” Peterson said. “They bring a tremendous amount of capability and knowledge that allow us to expand the science we are doing and we are able to work with them to ensure the science we are doing is useful to communities.”

A major part of the Hakai Institute is the education program. During spring break, science teachers from the region are invited to the institute. Many return with their students, and elders, for field trips later in the year.

“The program always has three pieces,” Peterson said. “There is a science/education part of things. There’s a cultural education piece which usually the elders will give them.”

The foundation has also set up a second observatory in Heriot Bay on Quadra Island. Scientists in the labs there look at issues more relevant to the surrounding areas including the affects of ocean acidification on shellfish and the migratory patterns and health of juvenile salmon.

“They are interesting scientifically and the location we are in is particularly convenient,” Peterson said. “The second thing is that it is commercially important.”

To monitor ocean acidification the foundation has partnerships with local shellfish farms as well as access to the information collected by the equipment on the Alaska State Ferry, which goes through Discovery Passage twice a week.

“These changes are going to come, even if we suddenly became incredibly smart, over the next 40 years we are going to see an increased acidification of the ocean,” Peterson said.

Hand in hand with looking at ocean acidification, the institute is part of a project that is looking at the population genetics of oysters to see if certain varieties are more resistant to the changing ocean.

On the salmon side of things, the institute’s main interest is looking at the health and survival of juvenile salmon when they come out of the Fraser River and swim through the Johnston Strait.

Peterson explained that the strait is a considered a nutritional gauntlet for the salmon, the water is turbulent and the tides are strong which means there isn’t much access to food.

Scientists catch the salmon on this end of the strait and look at their nutrition and health, and then catch them again after the trip and compare the results.

On top of the nutritional gauntlet, the salmon face another potential challenge—fish farms.

“There’s always he said, she said about what the impact of fish farms are on the health of juvenile salmon,” Peterson said. “So we take a point of view, we say ‘it’s obviously a problem worth studying’ but we don’t go into it with any expectations.”

With this in mind, the scientists look at sea lice contamination as well as viruses before and after the salmon swim the strait.

New this year the scientists are also inserting tracking chips into the salmon, an attempt to map the route that the fish take on their way from the river to the ocean. This is an extension of a project Scott Hinch at UBC is working on. He inserts trackers in the salmon at Chilko Lake, where many of the salmon begin the run.

Because not many of them survive, inserting chips again when the salmon reach the ocean means there is more data collected.

“Every organization that we work with, or that we can sort of consider part of our family, it’s a bunch of nurses in the highlands of Guatemala or it’s a group of salmon scientists who are out on boats together trying to catch small salmon to do something, or people who are looking and trying to tell the story of how our coastline is populated,” Peterson said. “They are different groups but they’ve always got a lot in common and that is they are collaborative, they are always working together, we’ve got a great network of partners in all of those cases and people are very, very dedicated to getting the job done.”



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