Fast Facts: Remembering Don Sullivan

By Jim Silver,

Don Sullivan was an environmentalist, best described as an ecosocialist, and a highly skilled political activist. He played a lead role in many environmental campaigns in Manitoba. He was the Director of the Boreal Forest Network. He played an important role as special advisor to the government of Manitoba in the creation of the Pimachiowin Aki UNESCO World Heritage Site on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. He was a wonderful wilderness photographer, producing memorable photos of Manitoba’s boreal forest. Most recently he was working closely with Camp Morning Star at Hollow Water First Nation in the fight to prevent the damage that would follow from corporate-driven silica sand mining in Hollow Water’s traditional territory. 

The silica sand battle was vintage Don Sullivan. He created and directed What the Frack Manitoba and worked closely with First Nations people at Camp Morning Star. Their respect for Don was such that they drummed and sang for him in his hospital room at the Selkirk General Hospital in the days before his death, and lit a sacred fire for him at the Camp Morning Star site at Hollow Water. Don dissected all the complex corporate legal and economic documents related to the attempt by Alberta-based Canadian Premium Sand to strip mine silica sand on Hollow Water’s traditional territory. He knew the environmental regulations and legislation in detail and pushed hard to ensure that they were complied with by a provincial government that he felt was turning a blind eye to those laws and regulations. He wrote and published continuously, often with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-MB, to make the public aware of the considerable damage—to Hollow Water’s traditional territory, to Lake Winnipeg, and to highway infrastructure and road safety on the east side of Lake Winnipeg—that would follow if Canadian Premium Sand were to be allowed to strip mine and transport by truck the millions of tons of silica sand that were a part of their plans. He did all of this while struggling with stage 4 cancer and approaching death.

In earlier years Don played a key role with Cho!ces, the 1990s social justice coalition. It was Don, along with a few others, who so often came up with the brilliantly creative ideas for one form or other of the political theatre that was Cho!ces’ trademark. One example was when Don, identifying himself as spokesperson of Cho!ces’ “Alternative Civil Service Commission,” walked into a press conference at the Legislature in the early 1990s when the then Conservative government was intent upon reducing the size of the civil service—some things never change—with an official looking layoff notice and handed it to Minister Darren Praznick. The layoff notice said, “Your position as Cabinet Minister has been identified as one of the positions to be eliminated.” Walking to the front of the room Don said, “Mr. Praznick.” “Yes?” the Minister replied. “You’re fired.” Ever perceptive, the Minister told the assembled media that it was just a “publicity stunt.” 

On another occasion Don presented the Alternative Throne Speech. Driving up to the Legislature in the trunk of a rented limousine, Don jumped out, pulled “the throne” from the trunk of the limo and, sitting on it, proceeded to read the progressive and creative “Alternative Speech from the Throne.”  

Former Cho!ces Co-Chair Jean Altemeyer was asked about her recollections of Don during our time at Cho!ces. She used, among other words, the following: “rumpled, inventive, fearless, smoky, committed, informed, and loved to tweak the nose of those in power.” Shirley Lord, a key organizer with Cho!ces, recalled “his passion and his creativity.” Glen Koroluk, Executive Director of the Manitoba Eco-Network and Don’s close friend for decades recalled their many canoeing and camping trips in Manitoba’s boreal forest. They got to the forest in the old, makeshift cars that Don relied upon. “I say makeshift,” Glen said, “because the trips we would do, one wonders how we made it!” Don never worked for his own financial benefit; he always worked for the public good. 

Don was a thorn in the side of many governments, of all political colours. He got things done, always relying upon his deep understanding of the issues, especially environmental issues, and his sophisticated understanding of how to push politicians into action.

Don died of cancer just before sunrise on Saturday October 15, 2022. We have lost an outstanding citizen and campaigner for environmental and social justice.