Nurturing Reciprocity and Building Relationships ‘in a Good Way’: Lessons from the Turtle Protectors High Park

juillet 20, 2022
Park People

Carolynne Crawley is a Keynote presenter at the 2023 Park People Conference and the Turtle Protectors program is featured on a tour of High Park.  Join us in Toronto June 21-23, 2023. Registration for the Conference is now open.

“We might get interrupted. I might get a call. I’m monitoring the hotline.”

This is how my conversation with Carolynne Crawley begins.

The hotline Carolynne is referring to belongs to the Turtle Protectors High Park: a volunteer-run phone line that park-goers use to report sightings of nesting turtles in Toronto’s High Park. 

Carolynne, one of the two founders of Turtle Protectors High Park is a Mi’kmaw woman with mixed ancestry from the East Coast. She is the Founder of Msit No’kmaq, which means “All My Relations” in Mi’kmaq. Importantly, Carolynne is also Turtle Clan and a member of the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle.

Typically, when we feature stories of TD Park People Grant recipients, we profile park-based events that showcase the vital connections between people and nature.

However, the origin story of Turtle Protectors High Park is particularly meaningful because it manifests two important Indigenous knowledge principles that can shape how we engage with nature and one another:

  • Reciprocity: Viewing the Earth and other beings as kin can inspire us to care for all species as much as we care for our fellow human beings.
  • Building relationships In a good way. The belief that building positive relationships takes time, and that the process of relationship-building is equally important as the outcomes of those relationships.


Reciprocity and Noticing Nature

One morning in June 2021, Carolynne was strolling through High Park when she saw a large snapping turtle walking in circles. Even though Carolynne didn’t know what was happening, she sensed it was something important. She also understood that what looked like harmless summer park goers and off-leash dogs to humans could easily interrupt whatever was happening and cause harm to the snapping turtle, whose life is no less important than her own.

Park People’s 2022 Canadian City Parks Report addresses the concept of nature connectedness, and profiles Carolynne’s highly respected work helping others cultivate a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and other beings. As the report highlights, settlers have historically had an extractive relationship with nature. One example of this extractive orientation is our tendency to only value parks in terms of how they benefit human lives. A reciprocal relationship would invite us to consider how we can contribute to natural spaces, such as those we encounter in parks.


A turtle egg in High Park, Toronto, 2022


As Carolynne says in the 2022 Canadian City Parks Report:

“I always invite people to think about our relationships with people. If you’re always giving, giving, giving, and someone’s taking, taking, taking without respect and gratitude, then there’s an imbalance there.” Adding, “As people, we have an individual and collective responsibility to be in a good relationship with the Earth, just as well as being in a good relationship with ourselves and each other.”

Speaking to Carolynne, it’s clear that this orientation shapes her daily experiences of High Park. Carolynne is attuned to noticing nature and demonstrating love and respect for all beings that she shares the park with. This is why Carolynne took the time to pause, pay attention and move into action on the snapping turtle’s behalf.

Hearing the story, I wonder if I would’ve noticed the turtle at all. Or, whether I would’ve had the inclination to stop and reflect on the turtle’s behaviour. I ask myself whether, like Carolynne, I would’ve made the time and space to address a turtle’s needs.

It’s somewhat ironic that the turtle at the centre of this important origin story highlights the importance of slowing down and taking the time to cultivate relationships with the natural world. If I behaved less like a hare on the run and more like a slowly meandering turtle in the park, perhaps I would take the time to pause, notice and demonstrate reciprocity.

Turns out this is only one of many lessons we can learn from turtles.

A turtle laying eggs in High Park, Toronto, 2022


Lessons from a Turtle

Upon encountering the turtle, Carolynne called Jenny Davis, who was the Event and Volunteer Coordinator at the High Park Nature Centre. Jenny’s expertise is collaboration. In fact, in her biography for the 2022 Park People Conference, she describes herself as uniquely adept at “bringing people together to get things done in a good way and fast.”

Both those qualities were key to protecting the snapping turtle.

Together, the two women made a series of phone calls with many experts they had existing relationships with, including in High Park staff, as well as biologist Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux, who specializes in turtles at York University. In fact, it was Marc who connected Carolynne and Jenny to another community park group dedicated to turtles: Brampton’s Heart Lake Turtle Troopers, also a current TD Park People Grants recipient.

Through these conversations, Carolynee and Jenny established several things:

  1. The snapping turtle they saw was walking in circles to find an ideal spot to deposit her eggs.
  2. The turtle and eggs needed protection. In fact, any disruption to the egg-laying process could cause the turtle to leave the nesting site without laying her eggs, causing her to become eggbound, and, ultimately, die.
  3. The death of a single female egg-bearing turtle has huge implications for the entire population because not only will her 40-50 eggs not survive, but it takes 20 years for a single snapping turtle to reach egg-bearing age.
  4. Even though all 8 species of turtles are at risk in Ontario, there is no turtle protection program in the City of Toronto.
  5. Laying a simple protective barrier over the nest site prevents predation by urban predators like raccoons and skunks, as well as off-leash dogs, giving the eggs a chance to hatch.


Carolynne Crawley laying a protective barrier over the nest site to prevent predation by urban predators


Building Relationships ‘In a Good Way’

Before Carolynne and Jenny even laid down the first turtle protector built by High Park Acting Foreperson Kyle Moffit, other park-goers came over to share their accounts of turtles laying eggs throughout the park.

Inspired by the Snapping Turtle she encountered, Carolynne and Jenny decided to create a turtle nest protection program in High Park that would:

  • Cultivate and share Indigenous knowledge and leadership in the park,
  • Raise awareness of turtle nesting in High Park,
  • Engage park goers as volunteer turtle protectors who could help identify nesting turtles in need of protection,
  • Build and distribute turtle protectors that help ensure the turtles and their eggs are able to survive, and thrive, in the park while allowing newborn turtles to hatch and leave the protective box safely.

The protection of the first nest set the course for the project.

To launch a program like this, Carolynne and Jenny would need support from the City, volunteers who would be their active eyes and ears in the park, and a whole lot of materials and people-power to build nest protectors.

Helen Sousa, the General Park Supervisor took the first positive step by reducing barriers to protecting turtles in High Park. While securing support for a project like this would typically require a complicated and bureaucratic process, Helen responded to Jenny and Carolynne’s concept for Turtle Protectors High Park with, “yeah, let’s do it, let’s try it.” And with that, the construction of several more turtle protectors was underway.

As Jenny and Carolynne underscore, the City’s orientation toward collaborating in “a good way” centered relationship-building and trust. The simple act of saying ‘yes,’ unlocked numerous other positive relationships and collaborations that ultimately led to a robust program to protect turtles and their eggs in High Park.


A tour was organized by High Park Turtle Protectors to spread the word throughout the park. Credit: High Park Nature Centre


These relationships include:

  • From the start with Turtle Clan Peoples at the forefront, the Turtle Protector program has been supported by Msit No’kmaq, the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle, Taiaiako:n Historical Preservation Society, Indigenous Elders and community members.
  • The City of Toronto’s Indigenous Affairs Office gleaned support from the City of Toronto’s Animal Services department. Animal Services were responsible for making and mounting the bright turtle protector signs that encourage park-goers to join the effort to protect turtles. Animal Services also manufactured the nest protectors that keep the turtles and their eggs safe.
  • Helen Sousa requested that signs be placed in the staff lunch rooms in High Park to educate staff about the Turtle Protectors Program, inspiring them to use best practices when engaging with nesting turtles and helping to spread the word throughout the park.
  • Heart Lake Turtle Troopers provided a tour of their Brampton conservation area, and provide ongoing support and guidance.
  • Biologist Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux remains on call for texts and urgent questions about the turtles.

Throughout my conversations with Jenny and Carolynne it’s clear that it took a tremendous amount of collaboration to get the Turtle Protectors High Park project off the ground. In fact, it almost feels like this project needs a credit reel to capture all of the many people who have contributed to its success (wait for that at the end of the post).


The Results of Working in A Good Way

Indigenous artist Catherine Tammaro, a seated Spotted Turtle Clan FaithKeeper and multi-disciplinary artist, designed the turtle image that is featured on the brightly coloured signs that Animal Services manufactured to engage the community in turtle protection. Jenny highlights why this gesture means so much:

“Now you have the city following the lead of Indigenous people. That’s hopefully a model we can move forward with.”

The leadership of Indigenous people has laid the groundwork for a new kind of collaboration.

For example, the project officially started with a Clan Feast on May 1, 2022.

And when a small construction project was slated for a section of the park known to be a snapping turtle nesting site, the park’s General Supervisor reached out to Turtle Protectors High Park for advice and guidance. As a result of this relationship, the City will now consider turtle nesting season when planning future construction projects.

The Turtle Protectors High Park will make their map of turtle nesting sites available to Animal Services, High Park staff, and the local Councillor. Because turtles tend to return to the same nesting sites year in and year out (a practice called ‘site fidelity,”) the map can help city staff be on the lookout for nesting turtles to avoid damaging or destroying their nests.

The City has also agreed to pause mowing when the snapping turtle hatchling emerge in September/October and when the Midland Painted Hatchlings emerge in May/June

In the 2022 Canadian City Parks Report, Carolynne Crawley refers to her work as helping people “return home to the relationship with the Earth” and creating space for people to slow down and notice the world around them.

The Turtle Protectors High Park owes its start to the two founders’ respect, gratitude, and love for all beings. This approach opened the door to a series of valuable collaborations that truly embody what it means to work together in a good way, where trust and relationships come first.

Turtle Protectors High Park’s team. Credit: High Park Nature Centre

Carolynne and Jenny would like to credit the following people who have worked closely with them to bring Turtle Protectors High Park to fruition:

  • Mama Snapping Turtle’s relative who inspired the whole project while laying her eggs on June 8, 2021
  • Turtle Clan Elders, Vivian Recollet, Bigasohn Kwe, Turtle Clan from Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation, Ojibway Nation and Catherine Tammaro, People of the Little Turtle, Wyandot of Anderdon Nation; Wendat Confederacy for guiding the program.
  • Henry Pitawanakwat, for giving Turtle Protectors its name in Anishinaabemowin, “Mishiikenh Gizhaasowin“
  • The Heart Lake Turtle Troopers for sharing their resources and best practices.
  • Andrea Bastien from the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle for coming on the site tour
  • Jennifer Lafontaine from the Indigenous Affairs Office at the City of Toronto for connecting city departments
  • Helen Sousa from the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation for supporting the project from the very start and for offering us storage space near Grenadier Pond and to Kyle Moffit and Daniel Taylor for building the initial six nest protectors in 2021 and for our installing our Turtle Protectors signs around the park
  • Esther Attard from the City of Toronto Animal Services for providing us with 15 nest protectors and materials to build 20 more and funding for the creation and production of our signs throughout High Park
  • Amyris Rada for creating and maintaining our website and social media
  • The High Park Nature Centre for providing a venue for our community events.
  • TD Park People Grants for resourcing three community events.


A turtle crossing the road in High Park, Toronto, 2022

What to do if you spot a nesting turtle from late May to mid-July:

  • Give her at least 4 metres of space to ensure you don’t disturb her – ask other curious passersby to do the same
  • If you see the turtle you spot is nesting in High Park of the surrounding area, call the Turtle Protectors hotline at 647-491-4057, a volunteer will come to stay with the turtle and will lay a protector over the nest once she is done laying her eggs
  • If a turtle is crossing a road and is in danger of being hit, help her cross the road in the direction she is heading

Made possible by a great collaboration

TD Ready Commitment
Park People