The Lone Oak in a Pine Forest
Never in a million years did I think I would end up working in Forestry. As I was growing up, I had never heard of anyone working as a Forester or that it was even a profession. I grew up in Toronto. I had never gone camping, never gone to ‘the cottage’ with any friends and had never even been ‘up north’ where all the trees and wild places supposedly were.
When asked what I wanted to be when I finished school, I would say that I planned to go to Royal Military College, join the air force and become a pilot. I wanted to fly planes but not just any plane – I wanted to fly fighter jets. Yes, I had lofty goals. But aiming high was the expectation and my duty as a child of an immigrant mother whose sole purpose in immigrating to Canada was to ensure her kids had better opportunities than she had. Why I abandoned the notion of a career in the military is another story and not the subject of this piece.
For part of my childhood, we lived near parkland that included a natural area in the former City of York (prior to the formation of the amalgamated City of Toronto). I remember hanging out there in summer with friends either playing in the playground that was in the groomed section of the park or trying to catch crayfish in the creek that ran through the natural portion of the park. I knew I liked trees and liked to be among them. That was as close to nature as I ever got during my formative years.
So how did I get into Forestry? I found out about it quite by accident during the annual university fair at my high school. I remember thumbing through the U of T program booklet and there it was – Faculty of Forestry. What? I thought to myself. I read on with interest and was hooked. Long story short – I applied and was accepted at both Lakehead University and U of T, which were the only 2 schools in Ontario that offered a Bachelor of Science in Forestry degree. I chose U of T to stay closer to home.
As September of that first school year (1984) approached and my friends and acquaintances talked about the college or university programs they enrolled in, my pursuit of Forestry as a profession stood out like a sore thumb. Without fail, each time anyone asked me what I planned on studying and I responded “Forestry”, I was met with blank stares. No one had heard of it. I would explain what it was and what Foresters do. Then the next question, “are there black people who do that?” would come from a lot of my black friends. I couldn’t answer that last question at the time but when school started, I got my answer.
With exception of some international graduate students, I could count the number of black students on one hand. In fact, as I recall, there were only three of us in the undergraduate program and I was the only female. There were two of us in my class and I was glad to have that company as it can be unsettling being the only black person in a crowd. My initial misgivings with the lack of diversity were put to rest early on. My forestry classmates and professors were great, and I had a particularly good experience at university. While I cannot speak for the personal experiences of others, at no time over the course of the 4-year program was I made to feel I didn’t belong. The only grief I ever got was about my disdain (fear - if the truth be known) for snakes, earth worms and caterpillars. My lack of appreciation especially for earth worms was apparently inconsistent with being a forester and some fun was had at my expense.
My interest in practicing forestry was always in the realm of urban forestry. I wanted to play a role in protecting, managing and promoting the awareness of forests and the benefits they provide within the urban context. I was keenly aware that in many cases, the only opportunities a lot of city dwellers have to access and interact with forested environments are provided by the remnant forests of ravines and other natural areas within the cities. In 1986 I was fortunate enough to get a student summer job with the City of Toronto inventorying vegetation in the ravines so that management recommendations could be developed. I did that for three summers and got the opportunity to work full time in 1988. I’ve been with the City of Toronto for 32 years and worked in a variety of roles including by-law administration, forestry planning and development, data management, policy and standards development, communications, and customer service. I’ve also had the opportunity to help influence how the Urban Forestry program has evolved and grown over the years from predominantly tree maintenance to forest management.
Despite the highly diverse population of the city of Toronto, I never had the opportunity to work with anyone who looked like me on any of the projects or initiatives I worked on. This would include professional planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers and others involved in the development of land. Likewise, there were no arborists, biologist, ecologists, environmental scientists, or other foresters who looked like me. Being in meetings and advocating and negotiating for the protection or enhancement of forest values was often lonely in more ways than one. On quite a few occasions, questions like “how did you end up in forestry” or “where did you go to school” would be asked. Once, someone asked me quite politely “how did you get this job?”.
Are the questions asked because of honest curiosity and lack of exposure to forestry professionals – especially females? Or are they more examples of the micro-aggressions that so many people of colour experience? I often wonder how many times these questions are asked of my white forestry colleagues.
I have had great encouragement and support throughout my career from white men and women of privilege. Despite this however, it has been and continues to be exhausting being the only one of my kind in my professional journey. It is hard not to feel that I am representing an entire “race” in whatever I do. It is tiring being extra careful in how I express thoughts and ideas for fear that one misstep will feed and reinforce negative stereotypes that are still so prevalent in society in general.
As the women in wood know, the forestry sector is still very much male dominated, but it is slowly changing, and I believe there is more gender as well as ethnic diversity among the young people entering the workforce. Attracting young people to forestry as a career path has been a challenge in the past few decades. Attracting women and people of colour from diverse, equity seeking backgrounds is an even greater challenge especially when there are so few role models to point to. People aspire to be what they can see and are exposed to. When you cannot see yourself represented, it is easy to feel you don’t belong.
Outside of my work life I have advocated for and supported forestry education, conservation, and the profession of forestry; having been a long-time member of the OPFA and past president of the Ontario Forestry Association (now operating as Forests Ontario). I will encourage these organizations to continue to be vigilant and to look at service and program delivery through the lens of inclusiveness and diversity. Being intentional in outreach to non-traditional communities is something we all need to work on because future forestry practitioners and professionals are in every community.
Though I have not yet encountered another female forester in Canada of African descent, I am hopeful that she is out there and look forward to meeting her one of these days.
Carol Walker is a Registered Professional Forester and graduate of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Forestry. Her career spanning over 30 years has been spent in the public sector, where she works for the City of Toronto specializing in urban forestry. As Manager of Forestry Policy and Planning, she is responsible for a diverse portfolio including among other things, long term planning, research and analysis, development of policies and standards, customer service and communications. She is a firm believer in education that raises awareness of the value of trees and forests for all the benefits they provide and an advocate for the Forestry profession. Ever an active volunteer, she is currently a member of Council of the Ontario Professional Foresters Association (OPFA) and is a past Chair of the OPFA Registration Committee and former member of the OPFA Urban Forestry Working Group. She is also a past president of the former Ontario Forestry Association.