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DPR- SILVER: Kelsey Johnson

Kelsey Johnson won silver for the C.B. Fairbairn Award for her article, ‘The cows are coming home’: two prison farms to reopen in Kingston. To view the full article, please visit iPolitics.

‘The cows are coming home’: two prison farms to reopen in Kingston

KINGSTON – The cows are headed back to prison — nine years after the Harper government shut down Canada’s prison farm programs.

“Promise made, promise kept. The cows are coming home,” Liberal parliamentary secretary for public safety, Mark Holland, a longtime defender of Canada’s prison farms, said to a crowd of about 50 Correctional Service Canada staff, former inmates, Kingston residents, farmers, members of the Save Our Farms organization and reporters Thursday morning.

In September 2009, the then Harper government announced they were closing Canada’s six prison farms. The farms were formally shut down in 2010. At the time, the Conservatives argued the skills inmates were learning at the farms were not useful for finding employment and did not justify the cost of the program. Farms in Atlantic and Western Canada were auctioned off, while the two farms in the Kingston area — including Frontenac Farm, considered by many to be a leading dairy farm in Canada — were closed.

A coalition of Kingston residents, nuns and farmers has been fighting to re-open Canada’s prison farms, even turning to civil disobedience to get their message across, arguing the farms were a critical part of inmates’ rehabilitation. A public meeting with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in August 2017 drew a full house.

A vigil had been religiously held outside of the Collins Bay penitentiary every Monday evening until March 2018, when the Trudeau government announced in its 2018 budget the two prison farms would be reopened.

“We never lost hope,” Diane Dowling, an organic beef and dairy farmer, said. Dowling is co-chair of the Prison Farm Advisory Council that was struck by Goodale in 2017.

Former Inmate of Frontenac Institution Shaun Shannon pets a cow in Joyceville, Ontario, on Thursday, June 21, 2018. iPolitics/Matthew Usherwood

Shaun Shannon told reporters the farms saved his life. Shannon, now 55, was convicted of robbery and as part of his prison sentence spent five years working on the Frontenac dairy farm between 1992-1997. He’d never been around a cow in his life before being assigned to work on the prison farm, he said.

On his first day, Shannon explained, he was tasked with washing tails. He said he was terrified. “I’m washing the cow’s tail and he turns around as if to say ‘what you doing back there bud?’”

The cows, the former inmate stressed taught him empathy — soft skills he says he never would have learned pushing buttons, painting fire hydrants or working in a laundry. “There’s something about an animal that just changes your attitude. It’s a responsibility that you’re given. You have to be responsible for someone other than yourself.

“It’s a whole different experience from learning in a shop.”

Some $4.3 million in new funding has been committed over five years for equipment costs and other expenditures not including infrastructure. Any infrastructure costs, Kelly Hartle, Correctional Services Canada’s acting CEO said, will be covered by the department’s budget. Efforts to restore existing infrastructure on the farms will also be made, she said.

Final plans are still in the works, Hartle said Thursday. The plan is to bring back the dairy barn and also launch a goat dairy barn — a first for Correctional Service Canada (previous livestock on the prison farms in the region included dairy cows and chickens.)

Billy the goat says hello to Morning Joy the cow in Joyceville, Ontario, on Thursday, June 21, 2018 A’s Beef Farmer Jeff Peters looks on. iPolitics/Matthew Usherwood

The goal is to have the farms up and running by late Spring or early summer of 2019.

Initially, Correctional Service Canada was only considering a goat dairy; but, after some lobby efforts from the community, including those who are currently housing cows, the government adjusted its plan.

Sister Paulina, a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul and a longtime defender of the prison farms, said she told the public safety minister that the cows needed to return to the farm because goats can “butt people a lot” and the inmates, she said, have already been “butted around enough,” which earned a chuckle from Goodale.

Further research, she admitted, showed there was no concrete evidence supporting her anecdotal evidence regarding the personality of cows over goats, much to her disappointment — but by that point she said Ottawa had agreed to bring the cows back.

A new joint cow and goat milking barn will be constructed across the street from the Joyceville Institution. The plan is that inmates would build the barn as part of their rehabilitation programming. It will house separate bedding areas for goats and cows as well as separate milking parlours.

Dairy Farmers of Ontario has donated some 32 kilograms of industrial dairy quota to Correctional Service Canada, which is enough for milking a herd of 30-35 cows, Correctional Service Canada officials said. The full dairy herd is expected to be around 60 cows and calves.

Some 200 Canadians, including local residents and farmers, are currently caring for about 30 cows and calves, descendants of the Frontenac dairy herd, who were purchased at auction when the farms closed in 2010. It is unclear whether Correctional Service Canada plans to buy those cows back (as has always been the group’s hope).

A proposal has been submitted to the Trudeau government for consideration, Dowling told iPolitics. The group is now awaiting a decision.

The goat herd is expected to range between 1,400 to 1,500 animals. Animals that do not need to be milked, if all goes to plan, will be housed at barns located at the Collins Bay penitentiary — about 25 minutes away from the Joyceville farm.

None of the milk will be processed on site. Instead, the hope is that both the cow’s milk and the goat’s milk will be shipped to the Feihe Int. processing plant currently under construction in the Kingston area, although no plans have been finalized. The new facility is backed by the Chinese government and, once built, would be the first wet infant formula plant in Canada.

Correctional Service Canada told reporters land rehabilitation programming is already underway, with some crops (soybeans) seeded at Collins Bay. A search for an on-site farm manager is expected to be launched this summer.

As for the farms’ futures, Holland told reporters any person who dares think of shutting the farms down would have a major fight on their hands. “I don’t know that anybody would be politically stupid enough to take this on again,” he said, noting the group’s “tenacity, resiliency and strength.”