This Island Is a Universe of Its Own

Garrick Ng / Studio Amarelo
Responsible Leadership

"A good place for transformation": this is the original meaning of the name Wasan Island. People have come here for ages to connect with nature and ultimately with themselves. Wasan Island in Canada breathes the rich heritage of indigenous cultures, and people are still enchanted by the myth of this island. Helga Breuninger and Volker Hann are two of them.

"Wasan Island is a place where people can feel and experience diversity," says Helga Breuninger, chair of the board of directors of the Breuninger Foundation, who owns and operates the island. "They open up to the beauty of the planet earth. And then, maybe, they feel a need to care for and not destroy it."

With regard to the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda of the UN, this is what one might call "walking the talk": On Wasan Island, visitors do not get lectured on the importance of environmental protection and sustainability; they experience the treasure of nature first hand.

And they can surrender to the magic of this remote location, get comfortable in a safe space, and truly connect with each other.

"To be picked up on the mainland with a boat, and the boat ride to the island … it’s like the mythical ferryman that takes you from one world to the other. You leave something behind and open yourself up to a new experience."
Volker Hann

Wasan Island is located on the traditional territory of Anishinabe First Nations, nestled in a rocky woodland setting and surrounded by the waters of Lake Rosseau. It provides a unique space for people to resonate with each other. There are, of course, people who take care of this place and who have established a special kind of hosting — people like Volker Hann, head of international projects at the Breuninger Foundation. He says:

"This island is our own little continent, the world in a nutshell. Here, in this place, we are a community for the time being, and our team welcomes you in a family atmosphere. We host friends rather than serving clients or customers. We try to stay away from this notion of professionalism."


"People have called us place-makers," says Volker Hann. "But I feel that we are place-made. Being on this island is more about listening. About finding out what’s appropriate and what works."


Power of Places

Wasan Island, situated in Lake Rosseau in the heart of the Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, Canada, is privately owned and operated by the Breuninger Foundation, a German non-profit organization.  The island measures about 2.67 hectares and is 220 kilometers from Toronto.

The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt has partnered with the Breuninger Foundation and other international organizations to advance the concept of "power of places" on a global scale.  This concept is based on the belief that places play a key role in creating environments that enable deep connection and personal reflection, both of which are required for collaborative processes. Each summer, the BMW Foundation hosts leadership programs and workshops on Wasan Island.

It was one of the first islands in the area that was inhabited. Some of the boathouses are probably over a hundred years old. "And we really try to retain these old structures as well as we can to keep this Muskoka flavor going. So I just love the smell of the wood, the splash of the water. Wasan Island has a healing spirit and healing energy."

No wonder meetings on Wasan Island — like the gathering of the BMW Foundation Transatlantic Core Group in August — happen amidst a soundscape of a slight breeze, chirping woodpeckers, and lapping waves.

"I find it difficult to describe Wasan Island in words," says Volker Hann. "In the same way that artists can often be challenged by describing their work — which is an expression of feeling or who they are. I feel the same about the island. It’s an expression of us and who we are."

"It’s so necessary to step back from that powerful expectation- and performance-oriented world. To step back and breathe — feel, sense, reconnect, and realize that you’re a part of nature. This will change your life."
Helga Breuninger

She feels like a servant to the island, explains Helga Breuninger. "My mission is to keep the island, to hold it and serve the tradition. My biggest learning as a host or facilitator is that I’m not responsible for the outcomes. That responsibility is completely on the group. Our responsibility and focus is on the energy and the process."


All interviews by Chris Fowler.

Video by Garrick Ng / Studio Amarelo

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