Sunday, 2 February 2014

Prison Farm Gathering

In our careful, self-preserving culture, many of us, when we think of activists, think of scary, irrational radicals; unkempt people absorbed in lost causes, among other things.  But we ought all to be activists in some respect.  This was the bulk of the message of the Save Our Prison Farms meeting recently held in Kingston.  This is a movement that is focused and down-to-earth; one of ordinary rural people rebuffed by a government that boldly went forth with an initiative that was not grounded in clear benefits, an initiative that was ghastly, short-sighted, and an insult to many things the people here hold dear.  Kingston's prison farm was functioning at a profit; it was creating a beneficial product (supplying foods that would then be consumed within the prison system) and offering inmates skills and purpose (which the government claimed were useless because they were in the field of agriculture, and who needs skills in agriculture?)

The prison farm was also home to a large herd of purebred Holstein cattle.  Anyone who works with cattle will point out that a herd cannot simply be broken up - it is a functioning unit, not a bunch of individuals that can be mixed in with a bunch of other individuals at random.  There was no intention on the part of the federal government of ensuring that the herd would be preserved, and so farmers in the movement worked together to buy as many as they could.  The herd is surviving and growing.  Many inmates, meanwhile, were dedicated to the work; they were developing skills that, contrary to the federal government's suggestions, were transferable; skills such as machinery operation and maintenance, punctuality, attention to detail, care for living beings.  But, in the name of punishment, this was taken away.

The meeting was held at City Hall on a blustery late January evening to commemorate the handful of people who were arrested in 2010 for civil disobedience as they attempted to block the process of dismantling the farm, and the house was full.  There were farmers, prison workers, social workers, artists, scientists, aboriginal chiefs, and interested locals, all of whom brought a swell of concern and a desire for change to the room.  There was coffee on tables covered with white table cloths, there were donation jars, there were homemade donuts, and Sarah Harmer opened the evening's discussion with a couple of songs, including Pete Seeger's "Take it from Dr. King".  There was insight and focus, and there were pleas from the most active to the least active:  get involved.  Please, look at what is happening to our democracy, to the value placed on science, to logic and reason in public policy.  Bob Lovelace, aboriginal leader and professor, spoke of the distinctly Canadian quality of "standing by" as our culture becomes further degraded.
When the Harper government depicted the arts as something only dainty rich people engaged in, a decadent and frivolous distraction from the interests of the real world, they alienated a sector of the population.  When Veteran's Affairs minister Fantino got testy with protesting vets for pointing fingers at him, he alienated a sector of the population.  When the federal government insisted that farming skills are useless, as it continues to make prisons more gulags, and as it continues to devalue what is working in our society and opt for choices that leave us poorer, they continue to weave threads of alienation. 

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