In the spring of 1985, I made my way to Horsefly, B.C., to embark on my first tree-planting contract and hopefully a new career. With a group of strangers from across the country, we started our five-mile walk in — our gear and supplies following in a tractor.

As we began erecting our camp on the work site, the contractor wished us luck and bid us farewell until the next week when he would return with more supplies. Only one person in the group had any tree-planting experience and was hired as foreman.

After figuring out a few shelters, which we built out of rolls of plastic, rope and some logs, we realized that there was no water anywhere. We found a puddle with a colourful rainbow shining on its surface, which became our water supply. Our cook was 23 and this was her first attempt at cooking.

The next day we started planting after five minutes of instruction.

We worked every day and by the eighth, we had eaten all our food except for a sack of flour, half a bucket of peanut butter and half a bucket of jam.

On the 10th day, the peanut butter ran out and I’d had enough. Five of us walked out, tired, hungry and broke. We went to the nearby town, found out where the owner of the company lived and fought with him for a day until we had some of our money, which would pay for gas home. I was discouraged and thought I would never plant again.

Today any of these actions would result in fines. But back then, this situation was the norm in the industry, although there was a movement afoot where tree-planting companies were building respect from good practices and conduct.

I gave it one more shot with a great company and never looked back. That company, and others like it, built its reputation from pride. The integrity that went into the camps, food, planting quality, safety and training all led to the industry standards which are in place today.

Together, they built the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association, which is not only a part of the forest industry, but also takes on a leadership role where needed.

Our reputation as an industry took a blow after last month’s allegations of slavery, violence and the countless violations of one contractor on a job near Golden.

As a forest technician in charge of administering planting contracts in the past, I have found myself unhanding a whip from a foreman, stepping around piles of feces in camps with no outhouses, being offered cash bribes, observing overcrowded vehicles, deplorable camp standards, and much more. I would always write these incidents up and present them to my superiors in the B.C. Forest Service.

I have been told to ignore the conditions, as the saving in the price of the contract pays for my wage. I’ve been told to look the other way or let the contract continue, as it is too expensive to get someone else in to do it.

In other words, the message over many years was that abuse was justified by being able to save money.

The situation with Khaira Enterprises was recognized in the planting community and communicated to the government, which awards many tree-planting contracts.

In respect to the government, they sent nearly every board or council out to inspect the company. I believe all of them found the contractor not up to standards, but instead of shutting them down, they fined them, essentially giving them the green light to continue the status quo.

Had the Khaira workers near Golden not lit an illegal fire which led to the discoveries of squalor and abuse, would this method of operating just have continued?

Twenty-five years ago, I sat in a tent outside a remote logging camp in the pouring rain, waiting for the loggers to finish eating as the planters were not allowed to eat until the loggers finished.

I laugh when I look back now, such prejudice, the loggers in their Atco trailers, the planters fending off grizzlies for a night’s sleep.

But somehow it made me stronger, probably due to the fact that a few years later we all ate together and shared the trailers, as we learned that working together and creating a safer workplace provided a better quality of life for all of us.

I don’t know if the Khaira workers will be able to look back and laugh.

The silviculture industry is the best it has ever been when it comes to worker safety; the direction is honourable. We just ask that the government work with the same level of integrity to help us achieve an even higher ground.

I don’t want to point fingers, as we all got to this place together. I simply hope that collectively, we can instil confidence in the public that we will continue to grow strong like the forests we work in.

John Gilchrist, Evergreen Forest Services, Winlaw, BC