Prison farm issue shows citizens can influence government

Often in politics, and in news, it’s the immediate issues that dominate.

Readers want to know what’s happening right now. Politicians want to talk about what’s happening right at this moment.

Rarely do stories, or issues, remain top of mind within a community for nearly a decade — so much so that a government is forced to reverse a decision made by its predecessors nine years ago.

The Harper government’s decision to close the Kingston prison farms is an exception to that rule.

For nine years a group of nuns, farmers, local residents, former inmates and community leaders have been demanding the prison farms be re-opened. They called themselves Save Our Prison Farms and even resorted to civil disobedience.

Most people in the community of roughly 130,000 either work with or have some ties to the seven penitentiaries in the area.

The drawn-out battle started in September 2009 when Stephen Harper’s government doubled down on its “tough on crime” agenda.

The prison farms, of which there were six, didn’t fit the bill. So the Harper government shut the farms down, arguing they were too expensive and that agriculture didn’t provide any meaningful skills.

It didn’t matter that the farms were considered to be leading edge in rehabilitation, with foreign delegations visiting regularly to see how they were run.

It didn’t matter that the Frontenac dairy farm was considered to be one of the best run dairy farms in Canada or that agriculture continues to be a major contributor to the nation’s economy.

The farms, the Harper government said, had to go.

That didn’t sit well with Kingstonians — or Canadians, for that matter.

Supporters of the farms took to Parliament Hill, bringing with them Stormy the Donkey, who happily feasted on the main lawn.

They wrote letters to their members of Parliament.

A vigil was faithfully held outside one of the institutes every Monday night, with supporters encouraging passerby to honk in support of the prison farms.

 When the cows were auctioned off in 2010, they blocked the road in protest so that the trucks couldn’t pass. Many were arrested, including Stormy. More than a few spent the night in a holding cell.

Some 200 people got together and formed the Pen Farm Herd Co-op, raising enough funds to purchase 22 of the animals. Those cows, and their descendants, have been temporarily housed on local farms in the area since then, the co-operative helping to cover feed and veterinarian costs.

It was standing room only in the local community hall when Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale held a public town hall in Kingston during the summer of 2017. More than 6,000 people participated in a written public consultation about the farms.

Officials said 94 percent of respondents supported the prison farms. The community never gave up.

The politicians eventually gave in.

Today, the original herd is no more, those animals having gone off to greener pastures. However, if all goes to plans, their descendants will be moo-ving back to prison next spring or early summer.

Justin Trudeau’s government is investing $4.3 million into reopening the two Kingston area prison farms.

The plan, Correctional Service Canada said, is to have a goat dairy and a cow dairy at the Joyceville Institution. A new barn is in the works, with separate bedding and milking parlours. Dry animals, if all goes to plan, would be housed at the Frontenac institution — about 25 minutes away.

Crop agriculture is also in the works at Frontenac, where officials are working to rehabilitate the land. Soybeans have already been planted.

Mark Holland, now the parliamentary secretary for public safety and long-time advocate of the prison farms, said the federal government’s decision to reopen the farms is due to the tenacity of local residents and the Save Our Prison Farms group of dedicated volunteers.

“The cows are coming home,” he said during an announcement June 21, earning hoots and cheers from the crowd.

While Holland couldn’t ensure the farms’ future, he told reporters he doubted any politician would want to battle the issue again.

“I don’t know if anybody will be politically stupid enough to take this on again,” he said. “This is not a group you want to go up against.”

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