Nfld. & Labrador·In Depth

The price of shame: N.L.'s rotational workers reveal hidden consequences of social media trolling

From banishment to death threats, residents who must leave the province for work are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 anxieties. Here's what they told us.

About 15,000 families choosing between livelihood and alienation

Gerard Manning, left, and his daughter finally reunite after a long separation. Social media users have targeted rotational workers like Manning, despite their precautions, in recent weeks. (Submitted by Deatra Walsh)

On Nov. 18, after more than three months apart, Deatra Walsh, Gerald Manning, and the couple's nine-year-old daughter reunited at the arrivals gate at St. John's International Airport. The family of three hadn't been in the same room together since August. 

In normal times, they'd exchange bear hugs the moment Manning stepped off the escalator, clinging onto each other after so many weeks living in separate worlds. 

This time, though, they merely waved to each other from afar.

Walsh watched Manning from well out of arm's reach. Manning climbed into the car they'd brought him, its trunk packed with a fortnight's worth of food, to drive up to their cabin, to stay alone until 14 more days elapse.

The rhythm of life for families of mobile workers in Newfoundland and Labrador has followed a similar pattern for decades. One partner leaves; the other picks up the bulk of domestic duties. There's pain, loneliness and exhaustion for everyone involved.

Now, these families — about 15,000 of them, according to 2016 census data — have been dealt another blow. 

On top of isolation rules forcing families further apart, several of these workers and their partners have described to CBC News the harrowing burden of recent public shaming, much of it carried out online.

In screenshots emailed to CBC, rotational workers revealed vitriol ranging from suggestions for mandatory extended quarantine to death threats.

As one aviation worker described it, "Our own people want us to stop working or just not come home, or worse, have our families locked up with us.… We are treated like dirt in our own province."

Taken together, these remarks carve out an alienating landscape for families caught between financial ruin and pariahdom, where simply going to work means risking not only their health, but their reputations.

Stepping back

As outbreaks at mining and oil camps snowball on the mainland, migrant workers coming home bear the brunt of blame.

"I went and deleted the Facebook app off my phone," said Larissa Whalen, a mother of three in Conception Bay South, whose partner works for weeks at a time in British Columbia. "I had to just take a step back from it."

Whalen described scrolling through comments targeting families like hers. Some accounts wondered publicly why these workers were allowed back in the province at all, suggesting, like members of the Canadian Forces, they should spend months away from their families until the pandemic recedes.

Larissa Whalen, left, takes a picture with her family. She has considered quarantining when her husband returns from working away to avoid online harassment, despite official guidance that permits her to engage in regular activities. (Submitted by Larissa Whalen)

Others, she says, have questioned her children's right to attend school, suggesting they could be spreading the virus to classmates while their father isolated at the family's home.

She's considered joining her partner in a two-week quarantine — and keeping the kids home from school — simply to avoid a bull's-eye on her front door.

"It's kind of hard to decide if we should isolate with him, or just continue as the guidelines tell us," she said.

Shaming pandemic?

Rotational workers returning to the province from other parts of the country must self-isolate for at least seven days. After a week, they can take a COVID-19 test, hunkering down until they're cleared. Isolation sometimes occurs in the same household as others. 

Those household members are not required to stay indoors, a rule that's sparked fears of free-roaming vectors who, theoretically, could spread the virus in hockey arenas, grocery stores and classrooms.

Online shaming of COVID patients pops up nearly everywhere the virus does.

In Grand Bank, the site of a recent mini-cluster, a man discovered police in his driveway after a neighbour reported him for hanging Christmas lights on his own property, according to an online group for rotational workers.

In New Brunswick last month, Cortland Cronk, 26, found himself labelled a "super-spreader" after an interview with CBC about how he'd contracted the virus while travelling for work. He's now the butt of memes, anonymous reddit comments (one of which has labelled him an "ass clown"), and various spoof videos on TikTok. 

Two months earlier, in September, the New Yorker wrote a feature on the phenomenon — titled The Public-Shaming Pandemic — featuring stories of harassment and trolling from beyond the Western world.

From Kerala to Vietnam, the magazine quotes victims claiming the worst part of their illness wasn't the virus at all.

It was other people.

$1B labour force

Many of the province's rotational workers are considered essential: they keep Canada running.

Newfoundland and Labrador, in particular, needs the fruits of their labour.

"It's an important part of our economy and has been for a long time," said Barbara Neis, a Memorial University professor who heads a project on mobile work called "On the Move." 

At the peak of rotational work here, residents brought an estimated $1 billion home with them each year, according to her data.

Many have specialty training and can't find gainful employment outside Ontario or Alberta, she added. 

"It isn't good for the province if these families all move away," Neis said in a phone interview. "That's not a good solution to a temporary problem."

Neis harbours sympathy for them, recognizing, through her work, their strong ties to home.

"I think they're being unfairly targeted," she said.

"Those people coming home brought children into the province. They put kids in the schools. They put money into the economy. They built houses. They've done many things."

'Just keep moving'

Deatra Walsh knows what it's like to move around, following the work. She's lived in New Brunswick, Nunavut and Norway for jobs that suited her skills and gave her a sense of purpose. She's now settled in St. John's.

Settled, for her family, means something a little different than the norm.

For the last decade, Walsh and her partner have spent long stretches apart. Manning, a carpenter, leaves for up to five months at a time.

"There's a lot of pain in that separation, in that distance," she said, her voice faltering. Manning misses birthdays and school concerts. Their daughter notices his absence. 

"She does look at her friends who have their dads here, and it's devastating," Walsh said. "I often say to her, 'Look, we just got to push on through. This is where we're at right now and this is what we're doing. And we just have to keep on going.'"

Deatra Walsh and her daughter, Drew Manning, try to find ways to cope with the distance. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

For the most part, she said, the family adopts a kind of stoicism about the arrangement. "I don't spend too much time thinking about it, because that would make me feel emotional about it," Walsh explained. 

"I have to get on with the business of life.… we just keep our chin up and we go. We've got to just keep on moving."

Walsh, also a researcher with On the Move, said her story is just one iteration of thousands across the province. 

"It's just a lot of discipline," she said thoughtfully, "to do what we're being asked to do. And that's not a complaint."

She thinks back to Manning, and how even after three months, he couldn't wrap his arms around his daughter as he landed on Newfoundland soil. "It's really hard on him. You know, he can't hug his child, which is what he wants to do," she said. "I think the folks who have put these measures in place know that."

Government steps in

Health officials, in recent weeks, have indeed touched on these families' dilemmas in their public messaging.

There's been a challenge with "the kindness element, quite frankly," Health Minister John Haggie told reporters in late November. He's encountered outpourings of sympathy online — perhaps in greater numbers than March — but negativity, he says, has also reached a new level of intensity. 

"To compensate for that [kindness] in some perverse way, they have become nastier and more malicious, bordering, in my view, on cyberbullying," he said.

Rotational workers who contacted CBC News confirmed Haggie's judgment. One screenshot shows a Facebook user threatening one COVID-19 patient with death. Others post relentlessly, CBC was told, wondering why rotational workers are allowed back in the province at all.

Janice Fitzgerald, the province's chief medical officer, waxed poetic on the subject two days after the health minister's commentary.

"COVID has taken much from us," she said, "but when this is all over, let us not say that it has taken our humanity."

Catharsis as motive

"We're seeing cases emerge again, and people are feeling frightened," explained psychologist Janine Hubbard. 

She's been watching the provincial zeitgeist evolve throughout the pandemic.

Those engaging online are "already at high levels of irritability and frustration and fatigue. So combine that with fear and it often comes out as anger," she said.

People often direct that anger at politicians. But as the cases pile up — coming, frequently, from remote work camps across the country — people turn their sights on rotational workers. Those opinions, on social media platforms like Facebook, are then validated with likes and shares.

This is a screenshot of a Facebook post threatening harm to a COVID-19 patient. (CBC/Facebook)

"People will post things online when they're in a heightened emotional state," Hubbard said. In the real world, someone might take a deep breath, more inclined to control their reactions. That doesn't happen in front of a screen. "It's really easy to just vent all of that online, to provide a catharsis for those feelings."

Hubbard has also seen the consequences of that catharsis, what it does to workers already stressed and afraid.

"They know that they're being scrutinized by their neighbours. Most people come from such small communities, where they know exactly who is working and when they come back into town," she said. "Feeling like your every move is being watched — it's exhausting."

There's a broader societal consequence, too.

"It's making people afraid to get tested," for fear the neighbours will find out, she said.

The shaming, in the end, is antithetical to what it's meant to achieve: Optimal levels of safety from a deadly virus.

"We need to remember back to the early days of the pandemic, when we were trying to bind together, and show empathy and sympathy for those affected," she said. "Not scorn and shame and suspicion."

Walsh agrees, and appeals for kindness. 

But there's also a bright side she's noticed, Walsh told me. She's pointed it out to her daughter, too.

Among the flood of bullying and misinformation, she's discovered a hidden digital underground: groups of rotational workers and their partners pulling together online, arranging gift exchanges and quietly reassuring each other.

"All of this anger is seemingly raging outside, [and] this other group … is all about support, organizing, community, doing good things," she said.

"I think that's telling."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's. She previously worked at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver.