Putting your name forward

When I meet new people, the second question I inevitably get (the first one being if they pronounced my name correctly), is where my name comes from. It’s Dutch – I was born and raised in the Netherlands, and even obtained my degree in forestry from the Netherlands (and yes, the Netherlands does have trees…). So how did I end up in Canada, working for the Canadian Forest Service no less? Well, here’s my story.


When I was a young teenager, I told my parents I wanted to live in Canada, even though at that point I had no idea I wanted to study trees. I couldn’t even tell the difference between a beech and an oak. So why Canada?

As was quite common in the late 1940’s, many people decided to migrate to Canada, New Zealand and other far-flung places, looking for a better life and more prosperity. My great-uncle ended up in Canada, and at one point had a stint as a park ranger in Algonquin Park. We would see him seldom, but he was a great story teller, and I think one of his stories may have (subconsciously) planted the seed for a future in Canada.


But how did I end up in Forestry? I always wanted to go to vet school, but needed some extra credits, which meant an extra year of high school. During that year we had a reunion where I ran into an old classmate of mine. She asked if I was doing something with trees. And even though forestry never, ever crossed my mind of something I would be interested in, it felt like something clicked immediately. I ended getting a BSc in forestry, and I have literally never looked back.

What never changed was my desire to live in Canada. So when I graduated high school (but before I knew I wanted to go into forestry), I was able to spend a summer in Canada. Remember that great-uncle? Well, he has a son who lives near Belleville, and they were able to host me for a summer, which was an amazing experience. From doing tourist activities like visiting the Niagara Falls to my first-ever overnight multi-day canoe trip in Temagami. I was officially sold – Canada was where I was going to live.

I was extremely lucky that during my third year in University, I was able to spend both a semester in England and do an international placement. My best friend and I ended up spending four months working at the Petawawa Research Forest in Eastern Ontario. It was literally a dream job! We learnt so much from basic forest management to forest research activities, were involved with a prescribed burn, received basic forest fire training and were joining researchers collecting field data. I don’t think we spent one day in the office.


Once I graduated, I wanted to permanently move to Canada, but that sounded easier than it actually was. I was able to secure another 6-month contract with the research forest, but had to go back to the Netherlands after that time was up. The year after, I was able to secure a one year contract (and visa), but again had to go back. I didn’t qualify according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) as a skilled worker, so wasn’t able to move permanently. However, three years after graduation (and several odd-ball jobs in the Netherlands), CIC decided to lower the qualification standard and I was finally able to move and become a permanent resident!


But at that point I didn’t have a job. Luckily my cousin and his family in Belleville were super helpful, but I ended up working at Tim Hortons for a few months, simply because I had to pay my rent.


The following spring I was able to secure another short-term contract with the Research Forest, and I ended up working with a researcher to put together an annotated bibliography on white and red pine management. It ended up being a great opportunity to learn so much more about these two iconic tree species and it also provided an entry into the research world of the Canadian Forest Service. After that I had several short-term contracts, to the point where I sometimes on Friday didn’t know whether I would have a job on Monday. One of these short-term contracts was working with the local logger, cutting the smaller maple and balsam while he took care of the large red pine. This was the time I met my now-husband. He still likes to jokingly say that when we met I was a real lumberjack, driving around with a chainsaw in my trunk. Admittedly, I’m actually proud of that!

During that time, there were also some changes in the overall management of the Research Forest, and the person ultimately responsible was based in Ottawa. We ended up talking at some point, and he was able to offer me another short-term stint, but this time out of the Ottawa office. This worked out quite well, since my partner lived in Ottawa. This person, George Bruemmer, ended up being absolutely instrumental for my career development. He bent-over backwards trying to keep me on, and after several contracts, a term position and several competitions, I was finally able to secure a full-time, permanent job with the CFS. A dream come true and a huge milestone for me, since all the uncertainty and unknowns when not having a job definitely gets to you at some point. I think it’s why I’m now so passionate about helping others, especially those that are trying to get a foot in the door and establishing a career. I know I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have someone that believed in me, but was also not afraid to push me.


Fast-forward about 10 years and I’m still with the CFS, now in a manager’s position. I love my job, but will never forget those hard, challenging and difficult first few years. I have also learned to really live life to the fullest. I have a daughter, who is 7, and we’re trying to teach her as much about the outdoors as possible. She loves learning about trees and plants, and has an enormous appreciation for the world around us. It’s really fun to watch.


We also decided to follow our dreams, and bought a rural property a few years ago. I have never been happier to live where we are, and show my daughter the world around us has to offer. Even my husband, who didn’t really learn much about nature until he met me, is now fully embracing our outdoor lifestyle. He’s even the better tractor driver!

I know I have had a certain amount of luck in my life, but I have also been able to seek opportunities and have not been afraid to take initiative and try new things. I went from working mostly on knowledge exchange and tech transfer activities, to leading a restoration project in Alberta, simply because they were looking for someone with a silviculture background, and I told management I was interested. Which led to the further development of my career. So if I can end with one piece of advice – don’t be shy to show what you’re capable of. Put your name forward, make sure they ‘don’t forget about you’. You never know what new and exciting opportunities lay ahead.

Katalijn MacAfee works for the Canadian Forest Service, where she focuses on forest landscape restoration, caribou habitat and cumulative effects. She is passionate about anything outdoors, and enjoys spending time outside with her husband, daughter and two dogs in rural Renfrew.

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