Stories of sexual assault at B.C. tree planting camps ‘shocking but not surprising:’ advocate

Caitlin Burge of Nelson, who works for Next Generation Reforestation, has 14 years of experience in treeplanting camps. She’s developing sexual safety guidelines and training for the company. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Nina Sylvester of Nelson has planted trees and run crews in B.C. and Alberta for seven years. She says it is easy for youthful planters to take sexist workplace culture as the status quo. Photo submitted

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 tree planting 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 it 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,” reads one response. “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.”

Owen says most of the stories are of that nature, not just sexist jokes but “scary fear-based incidents that affected them deeply.”

“I was raped and management did nothing,” reads another. “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.”

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.

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.”

‘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 tree planting 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.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. See the sexual assault fact sheet provided by Victim Services and Crime Prevention. You can also call your local police or VictimLinkBC for information and support.



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

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