Charlene Strelaeff, Fibre Forester at Mercer Celgar, is the recipient of the 2020 FPAC Women in Forestry award

Mercer Celgar’s Charlene Strelaeff is the 2020 FPAC “Women in Forestry” Recipient

As we grow into adulthood, children take influence from those around them to craft their being as an adult: whether it be their personality traits, their love of certain hobbies, or what they choose for their careers. Because this last point is so pivotal to our livelihoods as we become adults, it makes a difference whether those influencers on our careers are positive or not. For Charlene Strelaeff at Mercer Celgar, providing this positive influence is a crucial part of her identity.

As each of our Mercer locations are familiar with, there is a good chance for forestry operations to be located in rural areas – after all, it’s a sure way to be closer to the source of the operations themselves. And Charlene is no stranger to this. Growing up in a small town, Charlene was part of a forestry family, with Charlene’s grandfathers having owned small sawmills, her father working as a road builder and even her best friend’s mother who worked with her husband out in the bush running the equipment. Having grown up immersed in it, forestry felt fairly natural for Charlene. By the time she was in high school, she was doing map projects for the development plans of a local sawmill; but it wasn’t until her grade 11 biology class where the students were asked to complete a forestry plant ID project that Charlene knew forestry was the choice for her.

Charlene has shown herself at Mercer Celgar to be a critical thinker and incredibly adaptable; both of which are traits she showed before her time at MC, right after high school. Although Charlene felt that forestry was the right field for her, she wanted to ensure that she would enjoy the work. It’s one thing to be on the outside looking in, doing the odd project, but another to be immersed in the work for life. A local forestry consulting company was hiring for a forestry summer position so Charlene decided to walk in and ask for an interview for the position.

At the time, the company had also posted for a camp cook position. Upon Charlene walking into the office, she was asked if she was applying for the cook position. This was Charlene’s first experience with unconscious gender bias in the field, although she doesn’t believe there were any qualms about her gender or her abilities – it was just a first perception in a field known to be more male-dominant. She explained that she was interested in the field position and proposed that they let her work for 3 days. If they didn’t think she was up for it after that, they could part ways. 

The days turned into years, where she gained experience in different elements of the field and of the development side, affirming her love of forestry. Much of this knowledge was transferred by her first mentor in the industry, Sterling Angus, and it was through Sterling that Charlene adopted the mindset that she carries with her today as she promotes forestry as a career field: it’s not a question of whether you can do the job or not, but rather of building the skills to be able to accomplish the job. Gender shouldn’t hold you back if you have the aptitude to learn and take on the work.

On top of Sterling’s forestry consulting, he was also a temporary professor at the University of British Columbia and encouraged Charlene to continue with her formal education. Taking the knowledge she gained, Charlene began her post-secondary career in college taking university-transfer courses and then transitioning to the UBC Forest Operations program. In the UBC program, there are 3 separate streams that one can focus on in forestry: a more general forester, a more scientific forester, and more of a forest engineering specialty. Because of the exposure and knowledge gained on the development and operations side of forestry, Charlene’s interest was held there, leading her to pursue the forest engineering specialty. At the time, this program stream was heavily male-dominated, which can be viewed as intimidating and even challenging; but even then, Charlene wasn’t afraid to take on a challenge.

Upon graduating from UBC, Charlene began a position with a consulting company to complete articling for her FIT under her mentor Paul Jeakins and then complete her RPF exam. In her consulting work, Charlene crossed paths with Kathy Howard, who exposed Charlene to operational and higher-level planning and provided Charlene with a positive female role model in the industry.

Until this point, much of Charlene’s experience in forestry had dealt with men. As a forest tech, her first official role in the industry, she was the only woman staying in the remote camp amongst a group of men. In post-secondary, she was one of the few women taking the forest engineering major. It wasn’t until she completed her schooling and moved further into her career that she began working with more women in planning, development, and silviculture. It was during her time with Kathy and this company that Charlene recognized more and more the opportunities for growth within the industry – with very little barriers standing in the way. 

So why was there such a prevalence of men in the industry and not an equal representation? This was an intriguing question and is one that Charlene continues to pursue a solution for. 

Having grown up in a forestry community, Charlene is no stranger to seeing women work in what are deemed as more male-centric or male-dominated roles – in fact, it was expected that everyone contributes to the work equally. Upon entering the forestry field at 18-years-old, Charlene was never treated differently from her mentors and supervisors because of her gender. She can count on one hand the number of times she can remember receiving any disparaging comments from others, who were both peers in education and age, and were comments that she easily brushed off. The forestry industry itself was not keeping women out, evident by the opportunities to grow, but something was – so what was it?

Charlene has categorized the gender-based comments she has received into two different categories: those who work outside of the industry and don’t understand the draw (for example, many women are surprised at her career choice) and those who are uncomfortable when someone or something does not fit the norm. Upon learning about her career, many questions and comments include how ‘dirty’ the work is and if there is a fear of bears while out in the bush. These types of comments show a misunderstanding about the range of roles involved in forestry and is something that Charlene continues to clarify today: it’s not dirty work, but planned and based on science; wildlife is respected and worked around; there is constant room for growth as new technologies and methods for greater conservation and utilization are developed.

After joining Mercer Celgar, it is incredibly evident just how much of an advocate Charlene is for gender equality in forestry. She works to not just recruit more women into the industry but to break preconceived notions society may have about the forestry industry. 

She starts in the high schools; every year she puts on a presentation about careers in forestry, focusing on what women can do in the field. When possible, she’ll also take students out to the bush and show them what happens, describing the career possibilities. With some of the local high schools including a forestry program in their curriculum, this makes it a natural avenue for Charlene’s message.

Charlene is also involved with the forestry program at Selkirk College. When students are looking to job shadow at Mercer Celgar, Charlene steps forward to take these students on. She encourages female students to take advantage of the opportunity to shadow and brings them on to provide a detailed overview of the industry. Her advocacy for the forestry industry runs as strong as her advocacy for gender equality. Charlene often represents Mercer Celgar at job fairs put on by the Association of BC Forest Professionals, promoting the industry and their innovative new projects, encouraging youth to strongly consider forestry as a career stream. 

She understands that there will be a need for foresters in the coming years as more and more in the industry begin to retire, meaning that there is pressure to ensure that all of the acquired knowledge over the years will be passed down. However, Charlene also strongly believes that this knowledge will thrive under a diverse team: a myriad of education, experience, and perspectives means that gained knowledge will continue to grow in ways that haven’t even been touched on yet, making today a very exciting time to get into the forest industry. 

Gender equality is a major piece to diversity to further build this knowledge, and Charlene will continue to be a proponent of gender diversity in the industry to bring it to its full potential. We are so proud to celebrate Charlene as our Women in Forestry Award recipient from FPAC, during both National Forest Week and Gender Diversity Week in Canada. Her commitment to the industry and encouragement of women choosing this career path makes her an amazing role model for Mercer.