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Sonja Bata leaves an eternal legacy in conservation

Sonja Bata, the philanthropist and matriarch of the Bata footwear family who died this week after crafting a legacy of leadership through her intellectual, social and financial support of World Wildlife Fund Canada, embodied the best qualities of our supporters.

Sonja Bata

Sonja Bata 2015. Image © Michal Sváček

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Sonja Bata, and so grateful for her contributions to conservation in Canada,” said Megan Leslie, president and CEO of WWF-Canada. “Our condolences go out to her family and all those who knew her.

The most recent example of Bata’s generosity is her support since last year of WWF-Canada’s ongoing narwhal research. But her role as a WWF patron started in 1971 with an invitation to join WWF International’s board of trustees from founding president, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. This launched Bata’s numerous achievements for the organization.

“Her passion for environmental conservation and her hard-working professionalism help WWF build profile, raise millions of dollars and protect important ecosystems and wildlife around the world,” Leslie said.

As a board member and board chair, Mrs. Bata’s fundraising contributions helped secure a future for WWF-International and WWF-Canada. She confirmed donations from 35 Canadians to WWF International’s ambitious $10-million endowment fund and led a similar initiative for WWF-Canada in 1982, a $1-million endowment called “200 Canadians for Wildlife.” The endowment advanced WWF’s conservation work with essential funding for operating costs, which continues today.

“When Sonja undertook a project, she gave her full attention and effort,” says Monte Hummel, who was head of WWF-Canada when Mrs. Bata was chair, and is now president emeritus. “She could do more hard work — aware of every detail and meeting the highest standards in a limited amount of time — than anyone I have known.”

Sonja and Thomas Bata in Antarctica 1978

Sonja and Thomas Bata on a trip to Antarctica in 1978. Image courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum.

Mrs. Bata leveraged her connections to heads of state around the world — formed through the global reach of the Bata shoe business — to advocate for environmental legislation on behalf of WWF. After an encounter with Indira Gandhi, for example, the Indian prime minister established protected areas for tigers.

In partnership with Hummel, Mrs. Bata helped establish WWF as a conservation leader in the Arctic. With the help of her daughter Rosemarie, she organized an art exhibit with more than 100 donated pieces that raised $400,000 for WWF-Canada’s first conservation program, Whales Beneath the Ice. WWF-Canada researchers pioneered previously unknown techniques to study whales, helped protect Isabella Bay on North Baffin Island for bowhead whales, discovered seasonal movements of narwhal and protected Arctic river estuaries for summering belugas.

Thirty years later, a five-year commitment Mrs. Bata made last year to WWF-Canada’s Arctic Species Conservation Fund will support through 2022 new discoveries about an iconic Arctic whale: The narwhal. She made numerous trips to Arctic communities, which connected her to the environmental and cultural significance of Far North ecology. Inuit people shared stories with her about narwhals and other wildlife. She saw this majestic and mysterious marine mammal as one of our country’s top conservation priorities, with an estimated 90 per cent of the world’s narwhals living in Canadian waters.

Perhaps Mrs. Bata’s most valuable contribution was facilitating the publication of WWF’s pioneering educational resources that taught youth, students and educators around the world how to live more sustainably and take action for nature, shaping a generation of environmental stewards.

Sonja Bata, right, with Prince Philip, centre, and Monte Hummel, head of WWF-Canada, in 1982. © WWF-Canada

“We remember Mrs. Bata for demonstrating what is possible when people harness their passions and foster deeper connections to nature within their networks to create a prosperous future for the planet,” Hummel said.

Her many roles with WWF showcased the potential of philanthropy to achieve conservation success as well as personal fulfillment. “That legacy will last for eternity in the wildlife and wild places that will continue to thrive because of her,” Leslie said.


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