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Accounts of sex assaults in B.C. tree planter camps ‘deeply disturbing’

B.C.’s tree-planting community is grappling with new revelations of sexual assaults in remote work camps.

More than 70 planters, almost all women, documented their experiences of harassment and sexual violence through an online survey for tree planters.

Several of their accounts were made public for the first time at the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association annual conference in Prince George Wednesday.

As 100 silviculture managers and contractors listened in a hotel meeting room, Airika Owen, who helped conduct the survey, read from a thick stack of papers. At times, she choked back tears.

She called the accounts “overwhelming.”

The stories described planters raped in their tents, harassed on logging roads or dragged away to remote areas.

“Deeply disturbing, even traumatic,” John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association, told CBC News after listening to the presentation.

Officials say many of the aspects of planting camp that make it so amazing, including close-knit coed camps and remote areas, also increase the risk for potential harm. (Supplied by Torie Beram)

Concerns over management response

Owen, the executive administrator for the Northern Society for Domestic Peace in Smithers, B.C., helped conduct the survey. She’s also been been travelling to tree-planting camps to give workshops on sex assault prevention.

In her presentation to contractors, Owen said the survey showed widespread concerns about how reports of sexual assault were handled. Some planters kept the assaults a secret. Others said that, even after reporting what happened to managers, their attackers were allowed to stay in camp or transfer to other crews, without consequence.

Some mentioned that highly productive tree planters were given a pass. “We heard, ‘If you plant a lot of trees, you can get away with anything,'” said Owen.

About 400 current and former tree planters have responded to the survey. Owen calls it a snapshot for the industry, rather than a scientific study.

She said in the #MeToo era, this provides one of the first opportunities for tree planters to tell their stories.

Remote camps add to risk

“I think we’ve lifted the hood up and we realize how deep and dark it is,” agreed Betts.

Hearing tree planters’ stories of sexual assault was overwhelming, said Airika Owen, who brought the accounts to Western Forest Contractors. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Betts and Owen said tree planting is not more dangerous than other industries.

“But many of the aspects of planting camp that make it so amazing are also aspects that increase the risk for potential harm,” said Owen.

“One woman wrote about tree planting being the best years of her life, but that she is still haunted about what happened to her,” she said.

Like a college campus, there are close-knit, coed camps with large numbers of young people away from home, and alcohol and drug use.

But the geographical isolation of camps presents a unique risk.

“It’s not like an office building downtown where if I’m sexually harassed at work I can run outside and access any number of services,” said Owen. “You’re way out in the middle of the bush, usually without cell service.”

Betts said the silviculture industry has the courage to take action.

“The incidents and the rate of them is shocking,” said Betts. “I do not want to think that young women might be at risk. I don’t want to have all the women putting their tents together so they can protect one another. We have a duty as employers to ensure their well-being.”

John Betts of the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association said it’s vital to face the industry’s problem with sexual assault, given that 40 per cent of planting crews are female. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

In an industry where 40 per cent of planting crews are female, Betts says it’s vital to face this issue. He say it’s especially important now, as contractors in B.C. gear up for a major increase in planting to offset wildfires and mountain pine beetles.

CBC

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