By Danielle Vienneau
Chevaun Toulouse is a conservationist and an expert when it comes to reptiles and amphibians. Her love of the natural world and its inhabitants began as a child. Catching snakes and turtles in the swamp was a regular pastime for Toulouse, and these experiences have guided her career path and fuelled her passion for protecting the environment.
Toulouse is Pike Clan from Sagamok Anishinabek First Nation, which is located on the North Shore of Lake Huron, across from Manitoulin Island—the largest freshwater island in the world. With many wetlands in her community, Toulouse learned to seek out and handle snakes and turtles at a very young age. At 30 years old, she still experiences the same excitement now as when she was a youth—something she hopes to pass on to her little boy. “I thought they were the most fascinating creatures I’ve ever seen,” says Toulouse. “I still get the same excitement now when catching a garter snake.”
Currently completing an undergraduate degree in Biology and Indigenous Environmental Science at Trent University, Toulouse has worked in the environmental conservation field for many years as a species-at-risk technician for the Toronto Zoo, Magnetawan First Nation, Sagamok First Nation, for the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, and for the Ontario Science Center.
Recently Toulouse was a researcher for the documentary Great Lakes Untamed, which introduced her to a new artistic medium and the world of environmental conservation that highlights our Great Lakes and the challenges they face.
A passionate advocate for species at risk, Toulouse aims to blend her traditional knowledge and formal training to ensure a healthier planet for generations to come. SAY Magazine was honoured to interview this young changemaker.
SAY: Did you always plan to work in conservation?
Toulouse: No, actually. When it was time to choose a post-secondary program, I chose aesthetics. At 18 years old, I left home and went to Seneca College. Within the first few days of my program, I realized aesthetics was not for me. But since I told everyone in my high school that I was going to be an esthetician, I felt like I had to finish what I started, so I did. It took that experience for me to recognize that my love for the outdoors was what should have guided my program choice. I ended up at Sault College and earned my diploma in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Technician Program and completed the Ontario Master Naturalist Program at Lakehead University Orillia in partnership with Ontario Nature. I started working in forestry soon after.
SAY: Was there a moment or an experience that really opened your eyes to what you really wanted to do in terms of conservation?
Toulouse: While I was working in forestry, I just kept sending my resume to the Toronto Zoo. I did this for a number of years, and eventually I got a call back from the Toronto Zoo and was hired to do turtle tracking, which is something I never thought I would get paid to do. I had to relocate to Toronto for the job where everything was new and I didn’t know anyone. I really extended myself at the zoo for two years, and it was while working there that I felt like I really got a grasp on what I wanted to do. While tracking turtles I got to work with other Indigenous women in the field every day and go to different First Nations in Ontario to do outreach. Just meeting all the different people, and learning about their conservation projects
and environmental issues affecting their communities, like invasive species. It’s through my work at the Toronto Zoo that I was able to find my purpose—wanting to work with First Nations people in the environment, for conservation and to develop relevant programming. I felt really kinda lost up until I got that job.
SAY: What is it about snakes that fascinates you so much?
Toulouse: Snakes are the real underdogs. Typically people don’t like them, but they have so much purpose in the ecosystem. They are a food source for hawks, but, more importantly, snakes consume rodents that carry ticks and diseases. Because of climate change, there are a lot of ticks, and ticks are having terrible effects on moose, which means moose are now at risk. Snakes eat rodents—it’s their primary duty and their diets depend on that species. People are often afraid of snakes, but, contrary to popular belief, the majority of snakes in Canada are not venomous. In Ontario, for example, we only have one venomous snake, and it’s located in more Southern Ontario.
SAY: Do you have a favourite snake?
Toulouse: I love water snakes because they are such curious snakes. I’ve found if I tap my hand on the water, I can get water snakes to come over, and often I am able to catch one. I love trying to catch water snakes so that I can teach others how to handle them at outreach events. Our native water snakes also eat invasive species like the round goby, which competes directly with native shallow-water fish for resources and habitats, and eats native fish eggs. This is having devastating effects on the fish population, including all of our sport fish and our traditional harvesting fish populations. Water snakes have adapted their diets to eat more than 90 per cent of round gobies.
SAY: How did you get involved in the Great Lakes Untamed mini-series?
Toulouse: I’m part of the Canadian Herpetological Society, and Ted Oakes (director, series producer and executive producer) reached out looking for someone who had reptile stories from around the Great Lakes region. Luckily I did, and so I got involved through a placement with Oak Island Films. I was a researcher and an ideas person, and was able to bring my Indigenous perspective and stories to the project, like the segment about the blue racer snake. I also got my dad involved because he grew up trapping and has such incredible stories. I had the opportunity to go out in the field with the cameraman and gain wildlife filmmaking experience, but I only saw things bit by bit. Getting to see it upon completion in its full glory was amazing.
SAY: As a conservationist, what are you most proud of to date?
Toulouse: I’m so proud of the colouring book I created with Magnetawan First Nation. Each set of pages features photographs of common reptiles, gnebikoog (snakes) and mishiikenyag (turtles) found on Magnetawan First Nation, that have been converted to colouring images. There are also Anishinabemowin names for the species in both northern and southern dialects. I’m also really proud of the work I have done with Walpole Island First Nation and Alderville First Nation. Both of these communities are doing really amazing things, preserving one of our only grassland habitats left in Ontario through prescribed burning.
SAY: When it comes to major environmental issues, what do people need to know about the importance of working with Indigenous Peoples?
Toulouse: Right now, I would say it’s important to recognize that we are losing all of our species at a really fast rate. Climate change is accelerating so many issues exponentially. The majority of our turtles are at risk now, as is our moose population. There needs to be more partnerships and programming created to support conservation initiatives, including partnering with First Nations. A lot of our culture comes from the environment, and we’re losing both at the same time and at a rapid rate. They’re so interconnected and we need to conserve both, conserve our language and our cultures as well as our environment. Indigenous Peoples were always involved in the conservation of our environment, but colonization displaced us from that.
Personally, I feel such a connection working in the environment, and I want other Indigenous youth to have the opportunity to feel that too and realize that there are jobs in conservation. Growing up, it felt like our only job option was to go work in the mines. We need more funding from the government to increase awareness of this field of work and the accessibility of training.
SAY: What can people/families do to help the environment?
Toulouse: A good place to start is with simple gardening initiatives, like not mowing your lawn so that biodiversity can increase. Try planting native species in your yard as opposed to invasive ones. Increase pollinators because, as we know,
pollinators are also at risk. And support Indigenous conservation initiatives. There are things like turtle hospitals now in Ontario, so supporting those kinds of services for our species at risk is an easy and realistic action step in the right direction.
SAY: What are some of your future goals?
Toulouse: I didn’t grow up really knowing my language or my culture. By working in the environment, and for conservation as an Indigenous person, this work gives me that sense of connection and a real sense of meaning. As a result, I’m hoping to develop programming and resources that can do the same for other Indigenous youth and communities. I want to develop Ojibwe resources and label ecosystems in Ojibwe—STEM resources that incorporate Indigenous knowledge and language.
SAY: How do you feel your type of work has impacted you, and why should others consider it as a career?
Toulouse: Being able to work in this field and do something I love is so fulfilling. There is a real need for conservation work but, more importantly, I feel it can have such a positive impact on mental health, especially for those in First Nations communities. I’m 30 years old, and many of my classmates from high school have passed away now. I hope there will be an increase in mental health, especially for our young people, and I think our connection to the environment plays a key role in that. I’ve been really fortunate to work in forestry, with reptiles and in film—there are such a variety of options. Youth need to be able to access these opportunities and see themselves represented in this field (conservation). I hope I can help facilitate that because there needs to be more of us.
Did You Know?
“In First Nations cultures, snakes are considered to be guides, protectors and heroes. Snakes were also commonly represented on petroglyphs, petroforms and sacred birch bark scrolls. Snakes were amongst the most powerful of the spiritual beings to First Nations, and were depicted as compassionate and willing to sacrifice themselves to save others despite their cold-blooded or villainous reputations. Snakes were believed to create the rivers, as their twisted, winding nature matched the oscillating movements of snakes. Amongst the snake stories of the Anishinabek, the Medicine Serpent was the most powerful and influential. It was a healer and protector of medicine that could give gifts to medicine men, which were highly sought after. The snake is also considered to be a helper and protector of women. The Haudenosaunee also saw their benefits to the ecosystem and humans, as snakes eat pests that carry disease or decimate crops. These are benefits that snakes continue to provide humans with today.” ~ Chevaun Toulouse, Adopt-A-Pond News, Toronto Zoo
Danielle Vienneau, Editor-in-Chief, with SAY Magazine, believes in the power of sharing positive stories to inspire greatness in others. To submit your story, email email@example.com.