The Origin Story of Gaia College
This year, Canada’s Gaia College celebrates 20 years of teaching Organic Land Care to students from around the world, while pioneering Organic Land Care concepts and online education along the way. Gaia College has been providing affordable and accessible education for thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, helping them make positive impacts in their communities. We welcome you to join us.
In honour of this milestone we want to share the story, which ultimately came through the crossing of two different paths and a shared vision for meaningful change, despite not knowing how it would take form in the beginning.
The college’s co-founders, Heide Kim and Michael Hermary had been working a couple blocks apart for several years in downtown Vancouver, and often frequented the same sushi place before they finally met at an Instructor Diploma Program at Vancouver Community College in 1998.
Michael recalls a project they were assigned in the course about how to motivate learning in students. Michael and Heide swapped papers to read each other’s work - an intimate exchange into the minds of each other - and realized they both shared the value of love in teaching. Three months later, they moved to Vancouver Island so Michael could teach mathematics and statistics at Malaspina College. They rented a funky-two-bedroom cottage on the beach in Ladysmith, and got married on the beach there shortly after. “When we got married we thought it would be interesting to find something we could work on together, but our backgrounds were so different that we couldn’t see what that might be,” Michael said.
Heide was born and raised in Germany, but when she came to Canada after high school to visit her aunt for the summer, she never left. As a young woman, she turned her hand to a number of different things including salmon fishing, fruit picking, being a seamstress, and working for a stock broker.
Heide in the 1970s
After marrying and starting a family with Ty Kim, the two started a Canada-wide courier company from the ground up in 1976. Heide later took over the company and led as president for 15 years, during which she became widely known and respected as “the Dragon Lady.”
In the words of Heide’s daughter, Sonja, “Mom was an impulsive, headstrong and brilliantly clever rebel. She pushed boundaries and smashed her way through glass ceilings her whole life.”
Michael was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, but his family moved to Crescent Beach B.C. in 1964, where he learned to love the sea and its abundant inhabitants. Growing up, he worked in his family garden, helped his dad renovate an old farmhouse and became a curious nerd, reading just about anything he could get his hands on. During his teens, he worked at a nursery, lumber yard and learned to drive lumber trucks and cement mixers. He spent a lot of his free time camping, hiking and fishing in the mountains of Southwestern B.C., where he experienced beautiful landscapes, while also witnessing some of the horrific destruction caused by resource extraction.
Michael Hermary. Sonja Callaghan photo
At one particular time he remembers seeing bright green effluent flowing into a creek, and thought to himself, “We can’t keep doing this.” Even though the expanse of land was so big, the impact of industrial resource extraction was everywhere, he said.
Michael’s environmentalism is a personal passion, but it was also something he pursued while working on his PhD dissertation related to Climate Change.
After twenty years together, Heide and Ty separated and sold their business. At which point, Heide chose to follow her passion and returned to school to study horticulture and landscape design - her father’s family had been multigenerational farmers and she knew she wanted to connect with her farming roots and focus deeply in organic gardening, organic horticulture and food security.
In 1999, Heide and Michael moved to Victoria, Michael to pursue a PhD program in Statistics, and Heide to continue her high end landscape design practice. Once there, Heide started meeting with a group of horticulturists and landscapers to talk about sustainable gardening. They were searching for a way to articulate the practice of organic landscaping and urban gardening. At the time, organic agriculture was already established, however what this meant in an urban environment was not yet clear. While many people understood the value in organic food growing practices, translating these values to the urban environment was definitely not mainstream thought.
Michael and Heide celebrating their wedding. Sonja Callaghan photo
In an effort to bring forth these new ideas, they created an informal group with the intention to develop a common language - a universal terminology for these urban organic practices. This group incorporated itself as the non-profit Society for Organic Urban Landcare (SOUL).
Heide was still working in high end landscape design in Victoria, as well, she was teaching horticulture, and developing curriculum for the Victoria Master Gardeners Association. One of the things she taught was Integrated Pest Management (IPM) workshops, which is a systemic approach for identifying and remedying problems in the landscape. However, it includes the use of pesticides as a possible remedy. “Heide took IPM seriously, she wanted to know what the underlying conditions were that were giving rise to problems, and how to fix them, rather than simply applying pesticides or herbicides,” Michael said.
Heide had had her knee badly broken in 1998, and was not able to do the manual work required for the landscape installations and maintenance, so she started focusing more on teaching and curriculum development.
But when she started developing workshops, some of the ideas she was teaching didn’t sit well with established landscape practitioners, as well, she faced stiff resistance from the conventional industry education, as her approach was deemed at best, unnecessary. The conventional horticulture schools in Victoria were not interested in providing space for her to teach Organic Land Care education, so Michael suggested in an off the cuff remark that they needed their own school. And Heide, being the headstrong woman that she was, said, “Can we?” Michael did some research into the logistics of opening a school in B.C., and found out it was pretty straightforward for the continuing education sector.
Heide with daughter Sonja. Sonja Callaghan photo
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Michael and Heide talked for three days straight to process what happened, and reassess how they were living, and spending their time. They realized they wanted to live differently and help create a new reality, focusing on how people were living in urban environments.
Although they weren’t sure how this new reality would take form, they knew they wanted to do something meaningful - something that would contribute to the greater good. Heide’s workshops and teaching in Organic Land Care became sought after. She was teaching across western Canada and the U.S. with a couple of courses in Ontario as well. “People were hearing about what she was doing, and she was getting known, and people were inviting her to speak and give workshops,” Michael said. But it quickly became clear that traveling so much was not economically viable. There were people all over North America who were interested in learning what she was teaching, but it just wasn’t possible to reach everyone in person.
So in 2002, Michael developed a basic website for students to log in and access the lesson and resource materials that Heide had been carring to her classes, as a way to make the materials more accessible and reduce the amount of printed material being recycled. This first website ended up being the basis for the Gaia College curriculum and its online presence. The idea of teaching gardening on the internet was a foreign concept, but there was a demand for this type of education because it wasn’t available in most locations.
In 2003, Michael was hurt in a car accident that left him seriously injured. He found he was no longer able to continue his work as an instructor, and took an indefinite withdrawal from his PhD program. This however opened the possibility for Michael to guide Gaia College’s technical and business development.
Michael and Heide had considered establishing a physical school. After investigation they decided this would take too much time, money and energy. Instead they sought to work with education partners who already had physical schools, which would allow them to run courses in many different locations. Burnaby Community and Continuing Education was their first partner. Heide developed a landscape design program for them to use. This ended up being the first official Gaia College course.
The next year she created the Organic Master Gardener course at the request of Burnaby Community and Continuing Education. But this was also a Gaia College course, which became very successful, and was offered in a number of different locations. These courses were followed by the Plant Knowledge Course for Organic Gardeners, and the Growing Food Course. An excerpt from their website in 2003: “Organic land care practices go beyond integrated pest management, beyond the use of so-called organic fertilizers and pesticides. They acknowledge the concept of intrinsic health, and seek to create environments that cater to the well-being of all their inhabitants.” Gaia College was on its way, delivering Organic Land Care education.
The creation of Gaia College allowed Michael and Heide to make meaningful contributions in a constructive way, instead of being in opposition to the reality they wanted to change. They did not condemn pesticides, but rather shared their vision of how things could be done differently without them; pesticides are not necessary for healthy sustainable gardens. “This path unfolded in front of us,” Michael said. “And amazing things happened as a result of that…that willingness to move forward into this unknown.”
Heide and Michael accepting the BC Real Estate Foundation 2014 Private Sector Land Award on behalf of Gaia College
Fast forward 20 years, and Gaia College has taught over 5,000 students from around the world. There is far more to the Gaia College story, this is just the start. Many other interesting things have happened along the way. Sadly, the most profound event was in 2016 when Heide passed from cancer. All of us at Gaia College are working together to share her passion, and commitment to making a positive difference in the world.
Heide with her granddaughter Maya harvesting Sunchokes. Sonja Callaghan photo