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No Peterborough COVID-19 link to B.C. tree planters

There have been no COVID-19 cases linked to any tree-planting company employee in British Columbia.

This includes workers from the Peterborough area who headed west this year.

Jordan  Tesluk,  a safety advocate and auditor for the industry and a former  tree planter of 15 years,  said he developed the first model of  standards and guidelines to help tree-planting employees safely navigate  the 2020 season.

“That (model) ultimately became endorsed  by our provincial health officer and it ended up being carried across  the country and adopted,  in some manner,  in every planting operation  in Canada, ” Tesluk said. 

He said there are nearly as many people from Ontario planting in B.C. as there are people from Ontario planting in Ontario.

Emily  Stewart,  a Trent University graduate who planted in Mackenzie and  Burns Lake,  B.C.,  for three months,  said there were several  precautionary measures taken throughout the entire season. 

Prior  to arriving at camp,  Stewart said,  she was required to self-isolate  for two weeks. She said she then drove to the camp with two friends,   being cautious and using hand sanitizer when stopping at gas stations  along the way.

“Once we got there,  we were expected to  physically distance in camp at all times,  except for when we’d be  eating dinner or in the trucks,  and in those cases,  we had six-person  pods and masks had to be worn in the trucks, ” she said.

Planters  were not allowed to go to town after arriving at camp;  only one person  from management was permitted to do so when necessary.

Before  the season started,  many individuals voiced concerns about tree  planters’ impact on rural or First Nations communities if someone in  those sectors were to contract the virus from a planter.

However,  Tesluk said,  community acceptance was a key component to making the season happen.

“We  go into remote communities and in British Columbia alone,  we’re  talking about 140 different work locations in many remote locations,   often adjacent to First Nations communities. We needed to have the green  light from communities or at least have them involved so that they  could express their concerns and that we could adapt to them, ” he said.  

Their first proposed guidelines in early March included a  non-negotiable directive to minimize all contact with First Nations  communities due to vulnerability of their elders and the limits on their  access to medical services,  Tesluk said. 

“So,  I’d  probably say that our industry was the first to put that foremost as  part of their planning process and it remains a key consideration, ” he  said.

Stewart said planters were respectful this season to  keep individuals in these vulnerable communities,  themselves,  along  with fellow planters,  safe. 

“Everyone I was working with  really wanted to work. If there had been any outbreaks,  everyone would  have gotten shut down, ” Stewart said. 

Tree planting is Stewart’s primary source of income,  so she’s grateful she was able to plant,  she said.

Similarly,   Meg Hannigan – a fourth-year student at Queen’s University who was  mainly planting in Drayton Valley,  Alta.,  for Brinkman Reforestation –  said while she was hesitant to plant this season,  she needed the  money.

“If I wanted to continue to go to school on time,  I really needed to make money, ” she said.

Tesluk said tree planters are essential workers.

“If  we had stopped the whole industry in B.C.,  we’re talking about over  300 million trees,  somewhere in the neighbourhood of 65 to 70 million  dollars’ worth of trees,  that would have been composted or burnt and  that would have been a tremendous interruption to the landscape  restoration,  restocking of forest,  and all of those 4,600 workers in  B.C. would have then been kicked to the curb, ” he said. 

Dru  Guimond,  a first-year tree planter from New Brunswick who planted in  Saskatchewan,  Manitoba and Alberta for Outland Reforestation,  said  people didn’t view tree planters as essential workers. He said at the  time,  people really only considered health-care workers and police  officers,  for example,  as essential.

Tesluk said tree planters are also vital in keeping rural businesses up and running.

“Economically,   on a small community level,  tree planters keep many small-town  businesses going. There may be small hotels and small suppliers who  totally rely upon tree planters to provide them with a season of work, ”  he said. 

Tesluk doesn’t think people outside of the  industry truly understand the physical,  mental and emotional demands of  being a tree planter. “People push themselves to the limits, ” he said.  

Stewart said the spirit and attitude of planters are really valuable  for our country. 

“There’s  resilience,  hard work and teamwork that comes along with doing that  job. and then all those people go back into their communities with that  hardworking,  can-do spirit,  and I think that’s a really valuable  thing, ” she said.

Marissa Lentz is a staff reporter at the Examiner,  based in Peterborough. Her  reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local  Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: mlentz@peterboroughdaily.com

Marissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner

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