In Canada, tree planting is seen as a mythic summer job. This national rite-of-passage received a further boost when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently pledged the planting of two billion trees “to clean the air and make our communities greener.”

And yet when women and gender-diverse people enter the world of tree-planting, they experience high rates of gender-based violence from sexual harassment to assault, as well as promotional barriers and unequal treatment. Forms of gender-based violence are endemic to nearly every industry, but for tree planters, this harm occurs in an environment that is mostly isolated, remote, and removed from typical oversights, expectations, or rules.

I recently completed a study of the industry and found that when complaints are made, they are often met with deliberate mishandling, casual negligence, and active silencing by company management. Likewise, the failure by regulatory bodies to hold companies accountable has aggravated the problem.

In the past two years, a handful of articles, spurred by survivor advocacy, have shed light on this pressing issue. There have long been “whisper networks” — informal conversations in-person and online between tree-planting survivors and their supporters about harm, healing, and who to watch out for — but finally incidents of gender-based violence are being talked about publicly.

Industry leadership has acknowledged that these #MeToo stories are “deeply disturbing, even traumatic,” but there is a disconnect between this acknowledgment and responsive action from individual companies and industry working groups. In the majority of companies, management is male-dominated. With few exceptions, there are unclear HR systems, a lack of respectful workplace training, anaemic anti-violence policies, and often nobody safe to speak to. In many accounts, perpetrators were members of management who continue to supervise camps and company operations.

These factors coalesce to create a “perfect storm,” making tree-planting camps dangerous for women and gender-diverse people. As one tree planter shared: “You need to be fully aware that your safety is not valued and that you are a sexual object. You need to be aware of predators; you need to be aware of who has a history of sexual harassment in your camp. Try to have a friend who you can go to because you will need them if something happens. This is a dangerous industry, and you are not valued, other than for putting trees in the ground.”

The planters I spoke with also reported tree planting could be a wonderful and life-changing opportunity for women and gender-diverse people. I heard stories of survival, support, solidarity, and healing. I asked every planter interviewed what they loved about planting, and each articulated how planting had been one of the toughest experiences of their lives, but camps were also places where they had their best days, lived their best lives.

One said, “I loved being outside. It was really healing. And every day, you form these bonds with people (who) are really special. And I really liked pushing myself physically and feeling like I was doing something meaningful and stepping out of my comfort zone as a woman.”

Indeed, planting is a rare place where women and gender-diverse people are able to work in a physically demanding, resource-based industry outside of gender norms. This rarity should be protected.

When asked what would make planting safer, the planters I spoke with had many ideas. They repeatedly highlighted that developing trauma-informed policies would be an important start. Many tree-planting companies lack even a basic protocol for handling harassment. Other respondents said more women and gender-diverse people need to be empowered into leadership positions. Finally, planters suggested that mandatory anti-oppression training for management and bystander awareness training for employees would lead to changes in incident response. Broadly, the planters I spoke with think the normalized hyper-masculine planting culture is long overdue for a cultural overhaul.

#MeToo stories from women and gender-diverse tree-planters have become common, writes Jennie Long. #TreePlanting

Tree-planting companies are capable of rapid change. When COVID-19 swept the province in March and April 2020, just as the biggest planting season in B.C.’s history began, the industry ground to a halt. Industry leaders quickly secured community permission to operate, and public funds to ensure the transient workforce could comply with provincial safety regulations. Were these measures perfect? No. But they demonstrate that the industry can react quickly to societal changes on a broad scale when it is pressured to do so.

As one advocate trying to change her company said: “Hopefully, the culture catches up fast. We need them to understand that the language that they use and the decisions that they make count … These people keep telling me to slow down, but they don’t understand that it’s too late. It’s too late. We have to run. We have to run now. We have to, because we missed our chance to keep people safe. There is so much to do. We need to move together in this direction now.”

If you or someone you know has experienced sexualized violence, help is available. This Ending Violence Canada “Getting Help” resource can be used to find different options for support services across the country.

Jennie Long is a researcher, writer, facilitator and policy consultant.