Kelly Graham | Mar 28, 2018

When the prison farms were closed in 2010 my daughters were 5 and 8 years old. For half their lives the Save the Prison Farm Group has been a rich source of leadership and learning opportunities for my children. The story of these local activists is not just a tale of grassroots activism, it is a message of hope and inspiration for the world.

The news that the federal government will reinstate the prison farm programs at Joyceville and Collins Bay has inspired me and lifted my spirits. As a mother, I am always seeking out strong role models for my children. As an elementary school teacher, I try hard to help students learn new skills and become productive and positive members of society. I have been able to use the Save the Prison Farm Group’s work as an example to teach my students and children about social organizing and community but also about determination, compassion, pride and enthusiasm. The leadership they have modeled and the lessons they have taught over the past decade deserve a closer look and are truly worthy of our deep appreciation.

Determination and ingenuity are required to make changes when it comes to wrestling with the government. The mighty group who brought back the prison farms showed bucket loads of both. The Pen Farm Herd Co-op showed insight by purchasing many of the prison farm dairy cows at auction when the former federal government shut the barn doors and cancelled the program. This dedication illustrated to any detractors how serious they were about their cause by caring for the cows and keeping the friendly, productive and award-winning herd intact. This group of caretakers never lost faith that they would be able to return the dairy cows home, to prison. Their fight united a variety of local groups: land conservationists, local food enthusiasts, farmers, union members, criminal justice advocates and civil liberty organizations. These advocates have staged concerts, organized protests, planned blockades, raised funds, held letter writing campaigns, attended town hall meetings, they’ve been arrested, filmed a movie and built community. Simply put, the Save The Prison Farms Group are social justice heroes.

Getting involved in the campaign and meeting members of the group taught me and my family a great deal about compassion, human rights and Canadian identity. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about prison inmates before hearing about the government closing the farms. It seemed shocking and mean spirited that former politicians were taking away programs that provided training opportunities, social skills and successful reintegration. Making punishment a central focus of our criminal justice system seemed downright anti-Canadian. I met a number of farmers who had worked side-by-side with inmates before the program was shut down. Speaking with them helped me feel even more committed to the cause. Standing outside Collins Bay penitentiary in the rain, commemorating the date the feds closed the doors on the program, I spoke to a farmer who shared with me that working the land and being close to farm animals brought about positive change for the inmates. He said that healing was accelerated by the proximity to the cows and hens and that inmates who were part of the prison farm program were changed for the better by the schedule, work ethic, camaraderie and physical labour that are required for farm work.

Farming and a passion for the land is one of the deepest connections to our Nation’s history. Canada would not be the country it is today and has no future without farmland and access to healthy foods. Protecting land from urbanization, preserving and creating sustainable farming practices and food security are also issues I became more aware of from getting involved with the group. We were lucky to be caught up the the groundswell of positivity and enthusiasm shared by the the Save The Prison Farms Group. Through our local 4H program and with the support of locals farmers, my daughter had the privilege to work with 2 prison farms calves and speak publicly about her strong feelings towards saving the prison farms. Spontaneous and powerful things happen when people join together to stand up against unfair and unjust acts. We are witnessing this now in the states as teens rise up and demand action on gun control. We will need to see more of it to make social and political gains to secure a more just, equitable and sustainable future for all.

Canadians owe a big thank you to the Save The Prison Farms Group - our local heroes who showed such passion, perseverance, and integrity in organizing a peaceful and successful movement. I hope their story inspires generations of activists and maybe encourages a few more people to get involved in their communities.

Kelly Graham

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