ON ROUGHING IT IN THE BUSH

An Ontario forest firefighter reflects on the OMNR’s anti-sexist and anti-racist workplace policies 

October 17, 2014

Outdoor, physical labour lends itself to a slackening of decency. It can be liberating to curse loudly without reprimand, to leave “civilization” and being governed by the elements. But unchecked bush behaviour often results in discrimination or harassment. This was my experience forest firefighting in Northern Ontario this past summer.

For five months, Canadian youth protect natural resources and communities from forest fires in Northern Ontario. As relatively high paying, unionized work, firefighting is a great summer job for students, but it also provides a livelihood for many older, often non-university educated Northern Canadians. As a white, cis male southerner who needs money to go back to school, I took the job without a thought for its political implications. But I discovered the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) to be a rare nexus of the province’s young and upwardly mobile and its rugged bushmen. This intersection, while often providing sitcom-worthy encounters, exposed the kinds of prejudicial beliefs that predominate workplaces in both the North and the South. Caught between racist and sexist “jokes” and expressions of truly hateful sentiments, my failure to effectively intervene has left me wondering about the limitations and contradictions of current anti-discriminatory directives.

As a section of the Ontario Public Service, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) is an equal opportunity employer and ensures women and visible minorities make up a portion of the workforce. This also means that it abides by a Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Prevention (WDHP) policy under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, put in place to protect these groups on the worksite.

Job security is rare, and very important in a region with high unemployment, but it also enables recurring discriminatory behaviour, especially given firefighting’s history as a white-male occupation. A crew member in the fire program, known to many as a “legend” thanks to his years of experience, crass humour, and lewd gregarity, had been “punished” for violating the WDHP four times over an eight year career. On one occasion, a hazing-type incident targeted at a first year crew member involved physical assault, although the crew member only alleged that he was verbally abused. In instances like this, even after discipline, a game of cat and mouse ensues: the perpetrator continues their behaviour but with a keener sense of what offences will and will not warrant managements’ attention.

Although the WDHP policy provides professional protection by extending the definition of “workplace” to any setting where three or more colleagues are present, in a town of under 2000 a firefighter’s social life is spent with coworkers, making the WDHP so ubiquitous it becomes a parody. Even if a victim employs the policy, WDHP cannot protect those who challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia from the social ostracism they risk incurring, which, in such an isolated environment, can be difficult to endure. When asked about how the WDHP policy protected her at work, a female colleague replied that, “rather than rely on a policy, I needed to demonstrate that I was more competent than my male coworkers in order not to be singled out as a woman.”

Ultimately, WDHP policies, although an important piece of workplace legislation, cannot address fundamental beliefs and learned social behaviours. The time and dedication that is needed to build trust in order to undermine habits is rare in seasonal work such as firefighting, that many “outsiders” simply use to finance their educations.
While it is tempting to dismiss this intolerance as the trappings of a marginal slice of the country, the Left in Canada must recognize the strategic importance of the North. Northern Resource development is playing a larger role in our economy, putting the questions of First Nation treaty rights and the environment front and centre. Projects such as the “Ring of Fire” are valued in the tens of billions of dollars and promise thousands of jobs. In a region with unemployment rates as high as 14 per cent, the work is needed, but at what cost? Although initiatives are underway to ensure inclusivity of training and jobs, it remains to be seen whether local sovereignty can be retained in this process of development.

The northern working class will be decisive in determining the tenure of future resource exploitation, whether it will be just and equitable or whether it will serve only corporate interests. An anti-racist and anti-sexist strategy must be developed that addresses the specifics of the North and the work available there in order to build a unified resistance.

The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous

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