Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Chevaun Toulouse Is Helping To Change Our…

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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Chevaun Toulouse Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Ming Zhao

I like to hope that I am leading by example for other Indigenous youth. I have been able to collaborate with other Indigenous people throughout my career and we have helped each other out just by creating support and community within the environmental conservation field. I have made best friends through my work and have watched those friends become more comfortable with identification and handling of reptiles and amphibians but specifically snakes. My one friend went from being afraid of snakes to being able to identify and handle them for field research. These kinds of impacts make my work feel meaningful.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chevaun Toulouse.

Chevaun Toulouse; is a mother and a full-time biology and Indigenous environmental science student at Trent University. She is Ginoozhe nindoodem (Pike clan), from Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation. Chevaun is a First Nation Researcher for a spectacular landmark natural history TV series Great Lakes Untamed which has its premiere this month on Smithsonian.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

Growing up on Sagamok Anishnawbek gave me an interest and respect for the environment, as most of my youth was spent trying to catch turtles and snakes in the swamp. I knew I wanted to work in the environmental field, so I applied to the Sault College Fish and Wildlife Conservation technician program.

I began working for Turtle Island Conservation at The Toronto Zoo as a Project Lead- First Nation Conservation Technician. I assisted with the implementation of the Toronto Zoo’s Turtle Island Conservation program (TIC) with Adopt-A-Pond’s Blanding’s turtle Head starting and Reintroduction project in the Rouge Urban National Park.

Blanding’s Turtle Head-starting and Reintroduction

Blanding’s Turtles are 1 of the 8 Species at Risk turtles found in Ontario, and currently listed as Threatened. With a population of only six individuals in the Rouge Urban National Park remaining, the Toronto Zoo initiated their Head-starting and Reintroduction program at their facility. This involved collecting nests from source populations, which are populations that are healthy and stable. Their eggs are collected from sites that are in danger of destruction and would otherwise not succeed, so removing them from these locations and adding them to a declining population would be more beneficial than leaving the eggs to perish. The eggs are collected and incubated at Magnetawan First Nation for the month of June before they are transferred to the Toronto Zoo’s facility. There they are hatched out and raised for up to 1 year to provide them a size advantage or “head-start” to begin their life in the wild. These turtles are then released and monitored in the Rouge Urban National Park as more individuals are added each year and the program grows. This initiative has been active since 2014 when the first cohorts of individuals were released.

My position was assisting with the release and monitoring of Species at Risk turtles into the Rouge National Urban Park. I also assisted in care, radio-tracking, and monitoring of Species at Risk Turtles. I ensured the Species at Risk turtles were radio-tracked on a consistent basis, data collected and analyzed, and a formal report written for the project. I was also project lead on the Eastern Milk snake monitoring project, and Western Chorus Frog monitoring project. As part of an artificial cover object research project, I monitored Species at Risk snakes.

Through assisting in the development and delivery of programming/ resources for TIC, I was involved with outreach, education, and distribution of educational materials to schools and communities. This involved planning events at Toronto Zoo and Rouge National Urban Park, such as the Canadian Herpetological Society Conference. I worked in a team environment with other conservation projects developing programming and resources that could be used for education and outreach at the Toronto Zoo. While working at the Toronto Zoo I have been involved with the Christmas Bird Count, Massasauga Rattlesnake workshop, Ontario Nature BioBlitz, Toronto Zoo Indigenous people’s day, Toronto Zoo Venomous Reptile training, Blazing Star’s Ontario Reptile Survey Course, MNR Youth Outdoors Day, Ontario Amphibian and Reptile Field Research Techniques workshop and the Roberta Bondar Camp, teaching First Nation youth about nature photography.

I presented on “Conservation as Tradition: Protecting Biodiversity in First Nations Communities” at the Biodiversity Without Boundaries, NatureServe conference in 2017 and am an acknowledged Contributor to Master of Environmental Science Thesis “Overwintering Ecology of Head-started Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) in an Artificial Wetland Complex.” When I was not working for the Toronto Zoo, I was volunteering at local reptile facilities and doing outreach for Indspire; a national Indigenous-led registered charity that invests in the education of Indigenous people for the long-term benefit of these individuals, their families, communities, and Canada.

I worked for The Magnetawan First Nation Lands, Resources and Environment Department as the Lead Species at Risk Field Technician and Cultural Coordinator. I conducted daily road and habitat surveys, rattlesnake gestation surveys, identified, captured, and collected morphometric and spatial data on turtles, lizards, and snakes. I recorded daily logs, managed data, created and delivered outreach and education to the community and surrounding area. I radio-tracked species at risk to better understand their spatial use of the landscape, so this data can be used to inform land-use and development, which includes the 4-laning of Ontario Hwy 69. The work I did for Magnetawan First Nation Department Lands, Resources & Environment Department was especially important to me because it gave me the opportunity to practice my culture and at the same time implement Western Science based techniques learned in my education.

I also recently completed the Ontario Master Naturalist Program, a partnership certificate program through Ontario Nature and Lakehead University.

I had decided to return to school at the end of my contract with Magnetawan First Nation so I could attain the credentials and experience to become a species at risk biologist for my home community of Sagamok First Nation.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you during your filmmaking career?

While researching stories for the series, I asked my father if you had any interesting stories from his youth spent trapping on the land, and he told me the story of a ruffed grouse denning under the snow and shooting out from under the snow upon approach. Scientists studied this behaviour in Ruffed Grouse and that was how the sequence came to be featured in the Big Freeze episode of Great Lakes Untamed.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Everyone I had the opportunity to work with on the Great Lakes Untamed team were incredible and it was a pleasure to work and learn from them all.

Ted Oakes was the first person I met from the project and has been an incredibly supportive mentor and guide in the world of film making.

Jeff Morales I only got to meet via zoom due to the pandemic but was a truly knowledgeable and great person to work with. gave me newfound insight into wildlife cinematography and photography

Due to the pandemic, we did not get to meet in person, but I hope we can collaborate again in the future.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

The people that have inspired me the most are my family.

My Nokomis (Grandma) was a farmer, residential school survivor, school bus driver, and business owner. My Mishomis (Grandpa) was a hunter, trapper, business owner and chief of Sagamok Anishinabek.

My parents continue to manage the business; Toulouse gas bar and just retired the school bus.

There are a lot of people that have inspired me along the way, many of them from the Native offices at the post-secondary schools I have attended and my coworkers on these conservation projects have always been an incredible support.

My son has inspired me to create land based Anishinaabemowin materials for youth and to ensure he grows up knowing his culture and language.

My late friend Tina Southwind, who inspires me to just keep going.

I want to be effective and contribute to my community just like the hard working, ambitious Indigenous people before me.

Let us now shift to the focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

#GreatLakesUntamed is the first definitive natural history TV series illustrating this vast watershed’s incredible wildlife, landscapes, and human importance. Produced by Oak Island Films Canada and Merit Motion Pictures, who are also founding CO-partners of the associated Biinaagami Education Project, a collaboration with Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Swim Drink Fish Canada.

There is an associated Biinaagami educational campaign which has involved many Indigenous people, and which aims to make sure that the wider community involves First Nations in the decision making about the Great Lakes. It is planned that this will go out to 25,000 teachers in Canada.

I have been incredibly fortunate to be able work as a researcher on this incredible TV series, training for which was supported by the Ocean Bridge Direct Action campaign. I love working in conservation, especially with my favorite animals — reptiles and amphibians. It is important to me to be doing conservation work within my traditional territory and with our First Nations. When I was young, I loved playing in swamps and catching snakes and turtles. Now it is what I do for a living, and I love it!

#GreatLakesUntamed helped me gain experience in many facets of film-making all the way from planning to editing. I have also had the opportunity to consult with other conservation/environmental professionals and to be a part of an amazing team of researchers, directors, camera crew, and more. I was also able to gain wildlife filmmaking experience, which complemented my extensive work with reptiles in the Great Lakes Watershed.

Environmental film projects are important in helping to build a better appreciation for nature while also having a call-to-action for wildlife conservation. This TV series highlights the incredible wildlife behavior, landscapes, and some human stories within the Great Lakes Watershed. It has been a real pleasure to be part of the team on this amazing project.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to step up and act for this cause? What was that final trigger?

After I finished the Fish and Wildlife conservation program at Sault College, I found myself feeling slightly lost.

One day I got a call from the Toronto Zoo, and I completed an interview and that was it. I had no idea how long the work contract was (2 months ha-ha) but I packed up my whole life in Sault Ste Marie and flew to Toronto. I started out very out of my element again in Toronto/ the city but the work I did for the Toronto Zoo on the Blanding’s turtle project in Rouge Park was exactly what I had always wanted to do. I feel like I found my place and identity in the Rouge Park swamp.

After working for the Zoo, I went on to work for Magnetawan First Nation, Cambium Indigenous Professional Services, and the Great Lakes Untamed project with Oak Island Films.

In my career so far, I have met many amazing First Nation scientists who are enthusiastic about their environment and culture. I am hoping to use all my knowledge and experience to develop conservation programs as well as cultural programming for youth in my community Sagamok First Nation.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Many of my colleagues started with a fear of snakes until collaborating with me for any duration of time ha-ha

I like to hope that I am leading by example for other Indigenous youth. I have been able to collaborate with other Indigenous people throughout my career and we have helped each other out just by creating support and community within the environmental conservation field. I have made best friends through my work and have watched those friends become more comfortable with identification and handling of reptiles and amphibians but specifically snakes. My one friend went from being afraid of snakes to being able to identify and handle them for field research. These kinds of impacts make my work feel meaningful.

Dr Matt Scafford’s work is saving Ontario’s Wolverines and is highlighted in the Great Lakes Untamed series.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

This kind of work is always in need of financial support. A lot of conservation work is grant funded, which means we are constantly applying for money to be able to work. Not only this, but we need support from the government in conservation efforts, this means to continue supporting conservation authorities and Indigenous communities in land stewardship, being mindful of protecting species and spaces when developing. Conserving the land for next generations can only happen right now, if the government does not take this seriously, we will be in a very dire situation extremely fast.

Follow and support the Biinaagami campaign.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish I had known sooner that I could pursue this type of career and utilize the knowledge I gained growing up in my community. There is so many opportunities and various aspects to the environmental field and I have found conservation work extremely rewarding as an Indigenous person.

The first post-secondary program I chose was Esthetics, which I immediately realized was not the right program for me. Feeling overwhelmed, moving from my community to Toronto, facing financial difficulties, my grades suffered in the program. With that behind me, I persevered and started the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Technician Program at Sault College. I finally felt like I was heading in the right career path and was determined to complete this program, which I did.

During the pandemic, I had my first child and continued my studies while working remotely on a Nature documentary with Oak Island Films. Raising my first child during the pandemic has been challenging but always worth it.

I had to learn how to apply for funding as funding for conservation programs is always a barrier.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If you do not know where to start, take advantage of free events or volunteering for different events that might interest you. Getting involved with your community (urban or rural) is especially important in figuring out who you are and what you want to do/how you can contribute.

Research what kind of conferences or other opportunities there are. There are often bursaries or other sources of funding for Indigenous youth, especially in the clean energy and environmental field. Funding for travel is always available for Indigenous youth and students who are interested in attending different events. In this age of reconciliation, take advantage of opportunities that come your way. There are a lot of Indigenous professionals in this field and so many distinct aspects (forestry, geology, conservation, fisheries, etc.) to it.

Make an effort to reach out and collaborate with Indigenous people near you in a good way.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

The folks from Reservation Dogs, other Indigenous people working in environment

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Just keep going

There have been many times I have doubted myself and wanted to give up, but I just think of that, and it helps me.

How can our readers follow you online?

Facebook page —

Instagram — chevaun3000

LinkedIn —

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Chevaun Toulouse Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.