What Eleanor wanted: the divisive 'last will' of a hollow tree champion

What Eleanor wanted: the divisive 'last will' of a hollow tree champion

When the Vancouver Park Board first made plans to axe Stanley Park's iconic hollow tree, prolific activist Eleanor Hadley decided to take a stand.

Hadley spoke her mind at a heated park board meeting nearly a decade ago, catching the eye of Daniel Pierce — a then-recent film grad who was documenting the controversy for a feature film.

"She walked right up to the table with her walker, a yellow flower in her hat, and she proceeded to just tear into the Park Board commissioners for shirking their duties and failing to look after the hollow tree after all those years," Pierce told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's B.C. Almanac.

"I knew she had to be in my documentary."

Pierce and Hadley would go on to embark on a close friendship after working together on the project — one that inspired Hadley to eventually re-write her will by hand, just a year before her death in 2015 at age 93.

She bequeathed her new friend part of her $1.3 million estate — but Pierce will never see a dime.

The 'last will'

B.C. Supreme Court documents showed Hadley, a renowned Stanley Park hollow tree champion, wrote an official will in 2008 — one that was legally signed, witnessed, and appointed to The Canada Trust Company — bequeathing her estate to her nieces.

But after her death, her friends and family discovered a hand-written diary, with an entry titled her "last will." The document was dated September, 2014, and ordered her estate to be divided between her nieces, Pierce, and fellow hollow tree advocate Bruce Macdonald.

The entry included Hadley's signature.

"We felt that at the core of this was Eleanor's wishes, and what Eleanor wanted," said Pierce. "Eleanor was a fighter all her life, and she would have fought tooth and nail for what she thought was right."

Pierce and MacDonald attempted to prove that they were the rightful recipients of part of her estate in the Supreme Court of B.C.

"We looked at the facts of the case, we looked at what Eleanor had written in her journal, we knew Eleanor well enough to know that she would not have written that document lightly," Pierce said.

Witnesses and signatures

A B.C. Supreme Court judge eventually ruled that the 'last will' did not represent Hadley's final wishes, since she never told anyone about it.

"The formal requirements are that [the will] has to be a written record, it has to be signed in front of two witnesses ... and the two witnesses also have to sign," said wills and estate lawyer Candace Cho.

Pierce and Macdonald appealed the decision, but earlier this month, the B.C. Court of Appeal sided with the initial Supreme Court ruling. Cho says it could have gone either way.

"Ultimately what the judge is looking at ... is that first, it has to be an authentic document, and second of all, that it really demonstrates the final and fixed intention of that will maker."

In common cases like this, she says it's ultimately up to the judge's discretion to determine the will maker's final wishes.

"The only person who they can truly tell what they intended unfortunately isn't alive to tell the story."

With files from CBC's B.C. Almanac