speech from dead treeplanter’s father

Colin James, whose daughter Julia died on her day off when a crummy sank into Tibbles Lake during the 2003 treeplanting season, gave a speech at the recent siliviculture conference in Victoria. It’s a lot of things: a tribute to his daughter and parenthood in general, an informed discussion of the anatomy of industrial accident preparedness, and a negative review of the maturity of the treeplanting culture. Mr. James has apparently spent time talking about the incident with some of the people involved, which must have been very hard, but clearly has kept his head and heart open through the experience. It’s well composed and careful, suprisingly so given the quantity of emotion and criticism it’s funnelling into a quick talk.

tree-planter.com has a transcript posted on their message boards.


“…Tragedy strikes when all the ducks are lined up.” There are those that might think that Julia died because one other person made a huge mistake, made a terrible and impaired choice. Trevor Wishart did all of that, and now he languishes, potentially for the next four years in a Federal penitentiary. But Trevor was only one of the ducks in a line that day.

Let us talk about some of those other ducks. When Linde, Jenny and I went out to the Tibbles Lake camp to visit the site of her death and pick up her belongings, as we approached the camp and could see the planters milling around, Linde stopped suddenly, put her hand to her mouth to stiffle a gasp, and sobbing she exclaimed: “Oh my God, they are all like Julia.” It was a camp full of young people, people just like our Jewels. People on the threshold of their lives. People full of enthusiasm, full of energy and exuberance. What coach, when putting together what he hopes will be a winning team, would weight it so heavily with youth. Where were the “elders”, where were the mentors, where were the old hands who could counsel and guide these young people in more than just the requirements of their work. As the young planters arrived back at camp, some obviously very impaired, some just tired and anxious for a good night’s sleep – as the activities of some began to infringe on others – as the humm of impending disaster grew, where were those that ran the camp in an official capacity? Where were those who, just from experience, could have a calming influence? When accepting fees from campers the company is, to all intents and purposes, the “operator” of that camp, and as such has a responsibility for the camp and the safety of those in it…It is irresponsible to allow the drinking of alcohol and for it to go unchecked and unmonitored. When putting together crews for any project, it is imperative that consideration be given to “balance”, to “leadership”. A team leader must be able to garner respect, inspire and motivate, and he must be able to create a sense of “team” which is another word for “family”: in a family, we look out for each other. There was nobody looking out for Julia that night and, frankly, there was nobody looking out for Trevor that night.

There have been many times over the years, when the people on my crews have had to dig deep. In the old days, on “shutdowns”, 18 and 20 hour shifts were common place. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing the weather is bitter, it is wet, cold and miserable, but like it or not the job has to be done, there is no 7th Cavalry going to crest the hill and the weather is not going away, and the day is going to be a long one. So best get at it and get it over with. Everyone has left the trailer in the same mind, everyone has known what they must do and together we pull it off. What better way to say “thanks” at the end of such a day than with a case of beer and maybe a pizza: you can cover a lot of miles with a case of beer. But to hand out the beer, say “thank you” and then walk away with a “see you on the next one” or “see you tomorrow”, is criminally negligent. When you give out alcohol as a “management tool”, as a “thank you” or just as “the glue that binds”, you have a responsibility to every person present that you will get them home safely and you have a responsibility to their families and the general public….

It is not until tragedy strikes that we shine a spotlight on our culture. Well, tragedy has struck, and in the last 10 years it has struck 13 other times. This is unbelievable and unacceptable. Back in the late sixties your industry was born, those people that planted back in those early years, they are your elders: where are they today. They are not around anymore, in part because the job is being reduced to not much better than a paltry wage. It is also a brutal industry, it is incredibly hard work. I know what that is like, I work in an industry myself that is hard, it is physically hard and physically demanding. So that there is often an imbalance with more young people out there. The old people, some hang in there, some get jobs in hardware stores. So because tree planting is so brutally hard, and there are very few old timers left, you have to find other elders, you have to find elders who aren’t old. You have to find those qualities that an elder has, you have to recognize those qualities in the young people that return. They could be 30, 32, 34 or they could be 40. They don’t have to be old and grey and bespectacled, like me.

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