The Northern Society for Domestic Peace (NSDP) is collaborating with the Western Forestry Contactor’s Association (WFCA) and tree planting companies to make tree planting camps safer.
For two years, NDSP has been going out to the camps giving presentations on sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace developed specifically for the unique environment of the camps.
Airika Owen, who has been leading the workshops, said it is not unlike the problem facing universities, although the remoteness of the work locations presents added challenges.
“I don’t know if it makes it more dangerous,” she said. “I don’t know that predators are more likely to assault somebody because they’re geographically isolated necessarily, although it certainly could potentially be a factor. I think the geographic isolation of the camps plays into, sort of, after-the-fact. It’s much harder for someone who has had that happen to them to report, their options are limited, they’re trapped at work basically.
Last summer, NSDP decided to try to get a better handle on the problem by launching an online survey. The poll was designed to gather demographics, ideas for industry changes, whether respondents had personal experienced sexual violence or witnessed incidents and also gave respondents an opportunity to share their stories.
Owen pointed out a voluntary online survey is not scientific and said she would not be comfortable trying to establish rates of assaults and harassment in the camps, but they were nevertheless surprised by the response.
“I know we got a lot of stories from the industry, more stories than we had anticipated getting,” she said.
“We know as an anti-violence agency the rates it happens just in the general population and we know that it happens frequently in environments such as universities for example where you’ve got young people leaving their homes… and gathering together and making social bonds quickly and dating or hooking up or consuming alcohol, where they’re working, sleeping, eating, playing together. We know that’s a higher risk environment. We know statistically assaults must be happening, so we knew they must be happening in tree planting camps just because of the environment.”
Last month, Owen and other NSDP representatives presented the results at the WFCA’s annual conference in Prince George.
“We found the accounts as they described them, of course, shocking and distressing, but in some ways not surprising,” said John Betts, WFCA executive director. “It wasn’t a huge leap of the imagination to think it might be happening in our industry.
Betts said his organization has been working on the issue for about four years.
“It is a difficult problem and you need to have skills, to be very careful as an employer and a supervisor,” he said. “You’re working in an area that includes the Criminal Code, that includes occupational health and safety, the Charter of Rights, human resource issues and so on. You have to have certain skills, you have to have systems in place and to some extent our industry is breaking new ground.
“We were definitely pleasantly surprised,” Owen said. “Any time that you’re approaching a corporation or an industry… and approaching them with this problem, and asking them to face it, that can always go a number of ways, but this industry so far has been really great. “Everybody who attended the conference was really open to hear what we had to say, which was definitely going to be a downer to talk about, but we didn’t feel shutdown or shut out at all.”
Betts said the WFCA is trying to develop a standard for the industry working with NSDP and consulting legal authorities, human resource experts and the companies that are already successfully addressing the issue.
“The industry, I think, is full of good intentions, but we’re still having to develop the skills, the competencies, the best practices,” he said.
“That’s in the works, we’ve made good progress on that, but we’ve got some distance to go.”
That effort will be aided going forward by funding NSDP received from the Vancouver Foundation.
“We have the time to meet with industry, to meet with planters, to meet with government, to meet with lawyers, to meet with WCB, to meet with other anti-violence agencies, to really explore what system changes can we make,” Owen said.
“You can’t just take cookie cutter workplace harassment policies and procedures and plunk it into a tree planting camp. “It’s such a unique work environment and it’s going to take some collaboration and exploration to look at it.”
She said some of the suggestions they’ve heard so far range from simple, such as having paid sober people around for after hours parties to complex, such as developing a sexual safety certification program for companies.