British Columbia

B.C. tree planters get training in sex assault prevention at remote camps

Hundreds of B.C. tree planters are being trained to stop harassment and prevent sex assaults in their remote work camps. The camps aren't considered high risk, but co-ed camps in remote locations can create challenging situations.

'You're working 200 km down a logging road, if something happens'

Tree planting camps aren't considered high risk. But the remote coed camps, with large numbers of young people, present unique potential problems, says Airika Owen, who is heading up the workshops. (Alain Belliveau/Medway Community Forest Co-op)

Hundreds of B.C. tree planters are being trained to stop harassment and prevent sex assaults in their remote work camps.

Workshops — often inside makeshift tents with dirt floors — have been held at a dozen tree planting camps from Smithers through Clinton at the request of reforestation companies.

" We've been running around like crazy, going to these very remote camps," said Airika Owen, who is heading up the  workshops run by a Smithers-based women's group, Northern Society for Domestic Peace.

'You can't just run to the RCMP'

Owen has been driving through forests and down logging roads to talk with sweaty tree planters at the end of their grueling work days. The conversations encompass consent and harassment, supporting victims and how bystanders can interrupt potential sexual assaults.

Tree planters in a dozen camps near Smithers, Houston, Burns Lake, Lone Butte, Barriere, Clinton, and Lac La Hache are taking workshops on preventing sexual assault and harassment in their remote work camps. (Contributed/Northern Society for Domestic Peace )

Owen says tree-planting camps aren't considered high risk.  But the remote coed camps, with large numbers of young people, present unique potential problems.

"You're on work property. You're socializing together, drinking together, having a campfire, sleeping in tents," said Owen. "When you're working 200 kilometres down a logging road in the bush, you can't just run to the RCMP or a counselling centre if something happens. And a lot of these camps don't have cellphone or Wi-Fi service." 

'Just be cautious'

A group of young tree planters enjoying a day off in Prince George praised the camp they work in.  But they agreed it was a good idea to talk about women's safety in the bush.

"Just be cautious," said Julien Beauchamp, who travelled to B.C. from Montreal for his first tree-planting job.

Beauchamp said people in camp might sleep together "just to share body warmth, because it does get really cold at night."

Tree planters enjoy a day off in Prince George. 'You're so exhausted, you pretty much have less time for bad things to happen [in camp]," said Mathew McMillan, far right. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

" Don't leave yourself exposed. You're gonna need a bit of street smarts in the backwoods," he said. 

Alex Hall is a tree planter from England. She said working and living closely with people in camp makes it safer.

"You think about the worst possible situation, but it feels very safe," said Hall. "Because you know everybody and there's accountability. You can't meet a random person on a drunken night." 

Tree-planter course similar to one for campus coeds

The tree planters' "Camp Security" course now being used in B.C. was adapted from a "Campus Security" workshop developed for rural students heading off to university. 

"Tree-planting camps are similar to university dorms in that you have young people leaving their home environments to work and live with strangers. But reforestation camps are more about the geographic isolation," said Owen, the workshop organizer.

'You're out there in the woods, you've got young people away from parents ... we have to take some steps to improve their situation': John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors Association. (Contributed/John Betts )

"We've got the same demographics as the campuses," agreed John Betts, with the Western Forestry Contractors Association, which represents the majority of tree-planting companies in B.C. "We were coasting on the assumption that we're pretty progressive. We've got up to 40 per cent of our crews made up of women. 

'We endure all kinds of double entendres'

But reports of campus harassment and sexual assault several years ago pushed his industry to take a closer look at their own tree-planting camps, said Betts.

Betts said he was shaken several years ago by disclosures from two female tree planters who had been sexually assaulted on the job. Soon after, women at an industry gathering spoke out about harassment.  

"They were saying, 'we endure all kinds of double entendres and come-ons and we're kind of fed up with it.' They're out there in the woods and we realized we needed to make some improvements." 

Training could be extended to 'man camps'

In the past, said Betts, a tree planter who complained about harassment might have been moved to a different crew. "But the woman would say, "I'm not the problem, that person is the problem.' We made those fundamental mistakes," said Betts.

"Protecting women is really important, so that everything is respectful in camps," said Betts, who welcomes the Camp Security workshops as a step in the right direction.

The workshops are now in high demand, with one tree-planting company requested the training for all their managers.

Now, Owen says they're looking at adapting the workshops for so-called "man camps" in energy, mining, and construction.

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