TVO launches ‘Great Lakes Untamed’ series Sept. 26

Chevaun Toulouse, from Sagamok Anishnawbek hopes projects like ‘Great Lakes Untamed,’ and her role as a researcher within it, will encourage more Indigenous people to become interested in biology and environmental science.

by Warren Schlote

OTTAWA—A TVO documentary mini-series premiering this coming Monday called Great Lakes Untamed will bring a “Planet Earth-style” production to the largest freshwater ecosystem on Earth, including scenes around Manitoulin Island.

The three-part series explores wildlife and natural phenomena, people and stories about the Great Lakes and their watershed. The showrunner and director, Ted Oakes, said Great Lakes Untamed is the first large-scale natural history television series focused exclusively on this region.

“It’s like (the BBC’s) Planet Earth for our part of the world,” Mr. Oakes said.

The series is unique in another way: the editorial team includes a First Nation person, something Mr. Oakes said he had not seen in similar series.

That role belongs to researcher Chevaun Toulouse, from Sagamok Anishnawbek. This is Ms. Toulouse’s first foray into the film world. She grew up as an avid amateur “herper,” which is to say, someone with an affinity for reptiles and amphibians—scientifically known as herpetofauna.

“It was really new and exciting. I’m used to working in the swamps, catching snakes and turtles; I’m not used to all the phone calls and logistics parts of the job,” Ms. Toulouse said. “But I got to talk to other species at risk biologists and scientists, and it was really nice getting to network.”

A large part of her work focused on a segment about the blue racer, an endangered snake that exists nowhere in Canada besides Pelee Island.

Production on Great Lakes Untamed began three years ago. Over that time, Ms. Toulouse was managing environmental consulting work, studies at Trent University for biology and Indigenous environmental science, and becoming a new parent.

“I’m hoping projects like this will make more First Nations people want to work in environmental science,” Ms. Toulouse said, “and help foster a respect for nature, so everyone can help make changes to preserve our environment.”

Ms. Toulouse plans to become a species-at-risk biologist for Sagamok Anishnawbek after graduating.

Although there aren’t any Manitoulin-specific stories in the series, the team did plenty of filming on the Island, near Georgian Bay and on the North Shore.

Mr. Oakes, the showrunner who also has a PhD in zoology, said it was exciting to focus locally. He is from Ottawa and has been working on the BBC’s natural history programming for 25 years.

“The Great Lakes watershed is more than just the five lakes. It’s both incredibly beautiful and underappreciated, but also under threat,” Mr. Oakes said.

One segment of the program will highlight the threat of invasive Asian carp species, particularly silver carp, and what could happen if they breach the last defences keeping them back from the Great Lakes.

Alongside this large-scale series, Mr. Oakes’ production company and several partners are nationally launching Biinaagami, an augmented-reality school program about the Great Lakes. It will feature stories and information about the watershed, rooted in First Nation knowledge of the area.

He said this ecosystem has been invaluable to Indigenous peoples for millennia, but also to the founding of the settler nations of Canada and the United States.

“Without the nature in the Great Lakes watershed, we have nothing,” said Mr. Oakes.

Great Lakes Untamed premieres on TVO on Monday, September 26 at 9 pm. The episodes will be available on its website as early as September 23.