WARNING: This story contains graphic content. Reader discretion is advised.
Shocked but not surprised.
That was a common reaction at a meeting of reforestation contractors in Prince George last month when they heard a litany of stories about sexual harassment and assault in treeplanting camps.
“It is in remote areas where young people are working and sleeping and partying together. I don’t think anybody was surprised,” says Airika Owen of the Northern Society for Domestic Peace, the Smithers organization that collected the stories and presented them to the meeting.
“But I think people were overwhelmed and sad to see how many stories we were getting.”
Owen has been teaching sexual safety workshops in tree planting camps for two years. Last year she published an online survey asking tree planters whether they had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment in camp, and asked them to share the story if they wished.
So far she has received a flood of responses, and over 70 of them are stories of serious incidents.
• During my second year of planting I was raped. It took me a long time to tell anyone, took two years to tell management. I tried to pretend it didn’t happen, tried to shrug it off because that is the mentality around planting, to shut up and plant. In looking back I let a lot of things slide before the actual event because I did not want to make a scene.
• I was raped and management did nothing. They continued to employ the man and even put me in a living situation with two men I did not know after the incident. I was slandered and bullied by other employees.
Owen says most of the stories are of that nature, not just sexist jokes but “scary fear-based incidents that affected them deeply.”
Some stories were about sexist camp culture. In one reported situation, there were no shower curtains in the camp so the women bought curtains on their day off and put them up. Management took them down again because “that was not the vibe they wanted in the camp.”
Contractors’ association responds
John Betts, president of the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association and a West Kootenay resident, says they have been aware of the problem for several years and have been working to address it, partly through inviting Owen’s staff into their camps to give workshops.
“The Northern Society for Domestic Peace’s work in our camps is part of that effort as a resource for employers and workers,” he told the Star in an email.
“Rapes and assaults are not rampant across the sector,” he said. “Unfortunately, this kind of violence has occurred, which is tragic and distressing for the victims who need our support.”
He said many member companies don’t have problems with sexual harassment, and things are improving as his association develops guidelines on what a safe camp or workplace looks like and educates companies.
• I was raped during a party in a remote camp. I was 19 and the perpetrator was more than twice my age. I passed out in a field and he put me in his truck and drove me to his tent which was far away from the camp … He moved to another camp and I said nothing. Later in the season when I found out he was coming back I confided in a friend who spoke to upper management requesting the man not be brought back to camp. They did nothing. I experienced multiple more moments of unsafety with him. I have had years of shame over how much I had been drinking and that it was somehow my fault.
Learning bystander intervention techniques
Owen says planters are very open to her workshops “even though it is at the end of their day and they are exhausted and it is often rainy and muddy and mosquito infested. They are not being paid to sit through it. It’s not the ideal delivery model for training. But they have been super engaged, super polite, happy to have us there.”
She says the planters’ biggest need is a deeper awareness of the meaning of consent, as in the rest of society.
They also need to learn about bystander intervention techniques.
“That means training people to recognize a situation that is unfolding in a bad direction before it gets to someone being assaulted in their tent.”
• I witnessed a sexual assault at a drug and alcohol-fueled party. A woman was passed out on a couch in a public area and I witnessed a man stick his hands down her pants and assault her. We were horrified but did not intervene. It is one of our biggest regrets. For the rest of the evening we monitored it, and next morning we did not talk to the victim and we did not talk to the perpetrator. Without clear policy on what to do, we did not report it to management.”
• I was sexually assaulted two of my four years. Both times management dealt with it like it was a hassle and I felt my job was on the line for reporting it.
‘Such a strong sense of belonging’
Nina Sylvester of Nelson has worked in treeplanting camps in B.C. and Alberta for seven years and for three of those years ran crews of up to 18 people.
She says the stories coming out of the survey are believable and she’s happy it’s being talked about because in the camps it is possible to be oblivious to it, as she was in her early years of planting.
“Now that I look back with a different lens and perspective, it seems so obvious. But when you are in that insular world outside of your regular life, without a control or standard to reference what is happening, you don’t see it.”
Although many women work as planters, she says, the supervisors are mostly men, and she’s seen lots of harassment in camps go unaddressed.
The youth and inexperience of many planters is a factor, she says.
“I was 19 [when I started], so it is like a coming-of-age experience. You enter into this community that you are immediately and tightly involved with. You are looking around and saying ‘Okay, these are the rules in this society,’ and you get accustomed to them. There is such a strong sense of belonging. It is a total bubble, completely removed from your regular life, worlds away.”
Sylvester says change has to start with the owners of the companies, who should be taking training.
“A lot of these owners, predominantly male, have owned these companies for decades in different cultural times. They should go through education and then not only adopt it but incorporate it and believe it.”
Creating a respectful workplace
Sylvester is glad to see a trend toward education on consent, harassment, and inclusivity for treeplanters such as recent work by Caitlin Burge of Nelson, who works for Next Generation Reforestation, based in Alberta, a company that employs up to 200 people in camps.
Burge, who has 14 years of planting experience, is developing policies and training for treeplanters and their managers in her company.
The policies are behaviour guidelines. Employees will hear about them before they start with the company.
So if supervisors want to confront a sexual safety issue on the job they can say “This is not personal. It is company policy.”
Employees will be told that sexual consent is defined as “informed and enthusiastic consent.”
All employees will hear about the company’s expectations regarding a variety of things including health and safety, emergency response procedures, drugs and alcohol, protocols for working alone, and interactions with wildlife.
“But it starts out with respectful workplace because that frames everything, and that is our biggest priority right now. ”
Creating a respectful workplace includes sexual safety and mental health.
An online orientation will be followed up on by project managers in the camps who will be trained as trainers in sexual safety, peer support, and conflict resolution.
“We need to move all those things forward at once in order to create the culture that is comfortable,” Burge says. “We have not had open conversations about what it means to be sexually respectful or sexually safe.”
She says the three core values of this work are clarity, accountability, and wellness.
A duty of care
John Betts of the contractor’s association say’s he’s on board. He says treeplanting has been a very important job for young women.
“They have grown more independent, grown stronger, made money and made friends,” he says. “We are proud of that record. We are working to eliminate this awful element we have with some camps and crews and the suffering it can create.
“We have a higher standard of care because of the age of our workforce and the remoteness of much of the workplaces. We have a duty of care.”