Save Our Prison Farms Rally, Kingston, Ontario, June 6

On the way back from Ottawa and the Writers’ Union AGM, I stopped in Kingston, where the Save Our Prison Farms organization was having a rally, a march, and a spot of peaceful civil disobedience, as a protest against the Federal Government’s secretive, blinkered, ideological, and weird decision to shut down all of Canada’s prison farms – that help feed prisoners, that provide training, and especially that allow prisoners to learn how to work with other beings and with other human beings. As Sister Pauline Lally said, why “correct” something that is already working?

The enthusiastic group (1000 +) gathered in Sydenham Street United Church, and heard speeches  –see their website – and music – see their website for that as well. One of the speeches was about peaceful civil disobedience: we all promised not to get too rowdy. Then, accompanied by kids dressed as sheep and cows, babies in strollers, dogs on leashes, Stormy the Donkey, a tractor pulling a hay wagon, high school students carrying banners, golden oldies like me, and everyone in between – all ages, all political stripes, all interested in food and where it comes from –Kingston has a string local-food and community-food movement – and all alert to the land grabs and misguided ideas about “correction” that are no doubt behind all this – we marched to Correctional Institutes and duct-taped our sign and letter to the door. Stormy the Donkey did not kick or bite me or anyone else, though he did let fly with a few indignant brays. He might not have been too sure about why he was there, but everyone else was.

Save Our Prison Farms Speech

Thank you for being here today. It’s unfortunate that we have to be here at all. If there were a sane, thoughtful, and respectful government policy on federal prison farms – and one that serves the best interests of the Canadian taxpayer and of our society, and one in tune with the systems we will need as we move further into the era of an already changed and changing climate – we would not need to be conducting this event. As it is, I’d like to run through the reasons why I believe the Conservative Government’s closing of our prison farms is not respectful, not in the best interests of Canadians, and not in tune with the more disaster-prone climate we have entered.

First, you are entitled to ask yourself the question – What’s she doing here? She’s just a writer – a member of what is now often termed “the entertainment business.”  I guess that depends on what you find entertaining. Myself, I thought that my two adventure-packed, joke-ridden novels that revolve around the almost total annihilation of the human race were pretty entertaining, though not everyone found them the laugh riot that I did. But I did have to research the carrying capacity of the earth and the general rules of biological organisms – that would include your food  — and the likely effects of climate change on these things – just as I had to research prison conditions and penal policies of the 19th C – right here in Kingston, for my penitentiary-setting novel, Alias Grace.

For all of these novels, I had some helpful personal background. I was brought up with vegetable gardens – it was the war, and food self-sufficiency was important  — and, much later, Graeme Gibson and I had a big vegetable and fruit garden ourselves, when we ran a working farm near Alliston.  When I say “working farm,” I mean we worked hard. I don’t mean we made a profit. That nine-year-long enterprise taught both of us a lot of respect for farming and farmers. Anyone who’s ever come near such a hands-on experience knows that food doesn’t appear out of the air done up in plastic wrap.

Which brings me to my first point: The government policy is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to farmers and farming. It implies that the skills learned in prison farm programs and the experience gained are unimportant.  But it’s always a mistake to diss farmers. Money is an entirely human invention – a mental construct that has value only if we think it does, and that can therefore vanish in a flash when the systems it serves melt down – but food is a basic. The body can survive without money, but it doesn’t last long without food. King Midas wished that everything he touched might turn to gold, and his wish was granted – but then he starved to death. The prison farms program has the support of farmers and farmers’ organizations across Canada, because they know the value of farming. They resent being told that their profession is worthless, as a profession. So: change and improve the prison farms. Expand them to provide more local food to communities. Teach new skills, for which there are increasing opportunities. For instance, in greenhouse operations, or in horticulture and lawn care, in which there are at present 90% more jobs than can be filled. But why just disrespectfully shut them down?

Unless, of course, you want to privatize prisons, run them as a business for which crime must be increased because it is the raw material from which you profit, and bring the food in from the U.S.

Point two: The government prison farm closure policy is not in the best interests of the Canadian taxpayer, nor of society.

This one ought to be a no-brainer. Prisons cost the taxpayer a lot of money. (They’re also full of people who’d be better doing community service, but that’s another conversation.) Too much of the time prisons provide an education in criminal networking, and return people to society as more efficient crime perpetrators than when they went in. Skills that are valued by the community and result in jobs can offset this effect, as is well known.  So what do we want –more and more criminals, increasingly expensive for us to warehouse, or more self-sufficient citizens who taxpayers do not have to support?

Now let’s consider health. There’s the moral or mental health value of contributing to your upkeep by growing your own food, of course. But also,  people in prisons get sick and have to be treated at taxpayer’s expense. Many studies have shown that an interaction with nature and other living beings makes prisoners six times less likely to get sick. Taxpayers, add up the bills. Do you want to pay the doctor for six times more patients who have been made artificially ill by being cut off from the organic world? By closing prison farms, the government is mis-spending your money in advance. They say they are closing the farms to save money – but they haven’t figured in the increased costs of more and more repeat offenders, nor of the increased illness rate that will result from the closures. But maybe that’s what they want: more criminals. At your expense. In super-prisons. Because it’s big business.

My last point is:  The government is out of tune with the era of a changed and changing climate into which we have already moved.

Despite the climate change deniers who don’ want to believe in the laws of chemistry and physics, the climate is indeed changing – with more extreme weather worldwide – more droughts, more floods, more tornadoes, more heat waves. Farmers know that. These changes are already affecting world food production. Big agribusinesses with their monocultures will be hardest hit – for monocultures and their mon-diseases, see wheat rust and the potato famine — whereas smaller, more diverse mixed-farming operations are not only more productive per acre but also more resilient during extreme weather episodes — especially if they build organic soils.

Also, the closer a community is to its food supply, the better it will be able to get through such systems melt-downs without famines, civic disorders, and loss of life. Other governments – such as Britain’s – are already planning along those lines – towards national and local food self-sufficiency — and implementing their plans. Why isn’t our government doing the same? Why is it moving backwards?

In conclusion, let me say that I think the government plan to close prison farms is a wasted opportunity, as well as a direct contribution, not to increased “public safety” as the government claims, but to increased public poverty, increased public instability, and increased public danger.

It is also dumb as a stump and stupid as a box of hair and also a sack of hammers, and those who thought it up have their lights on but nobody home, and aren’t playing with a full deck. Follow them, and you’ll soon be up an aptly-named excrement-filled creek without a paddle. I learnt those down-to-earth expressions while we were running our farm, farms being places where you do tend to get down to the earth, literally.

Government! Are you listening? Are you living up to the promises on which you got elected, long ago – accountability, responsibility, transparency, and access for the taxpayer? Or have you shut yourselves up in a mental prison of your own construction – where, on the taxpayer’s dollar, you need listen to nobody but yourselves, like some old-fashioned absolute monarch surrounded by yes-men and flunkies?

It’s time to descend from the ideological palace and get down to earth. Because that’s where the food comes from.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

29 responses to “Save Our Prison Farms Rally, Kingston, Ontario, June 6

  1. joan moon

    I attended the rally in Kingston and was inspired by all the efforts being made………

  2. Susan Bain

    I think we were all inspired by all the speakers, but particularly by Margaret Atwood’s speech. Now let’s just hope Mr. Harper hears us all. His inability to hear those who hold opinions contrary to his, and who prefer to see decision-making based on effectiveness rather than ideology, is an unfortunate characteristic for a prime minister.

  3. Wendy Luella Perkins

    Margaret–thanks so much for coming and adding your criticism, analysis and humour to the event and for marching (and chanting) along with us. It was an inspiring afternoon.

    Thanks also for posting your talk so promptly. A farmer friend of mine’s 90+ year old grandmother was in attendance. She was a farmer too, back in the day and was a very active member of the National Farmers Union. She loved hearing you speak, and thought your combination of “insight, wit and humour” was fantastic. She had a bit of trouble hearing all your remarks, and hoped to get a copy of your speech. I am going to print out your talk (and further comments) and walk it down to her seniors residence tomorrow.

    Thanks again Margaret for all the you are, and for being such an alive person,

    Wendy Luella

  4. Roberta Hamilton

    The rally was inspirational; the reason for it filled us with despair, anger, and outrage. This government has destroyed much of what my generation of women struggled for. But the decision to close down prison farms hits at something more primordial than that. The callousness, the meanness, the short-sightedness, the ignorance: all this boggles the mind and causes the temperature to rise. As a life-long NDPer I am now in favour of a Liberal/NDP coalition just to get rid of these guys – and soon– before they have destroyed even more.

  5. Pingback: Margaret Atwood calls plan to close prison farms “dumb as a stump” | Mother Atwood |

  6. Ottawa, Tuesday 8/6/2010 13h00 – Bravo, Ms Atwood! I’m so glad to hear you speak up on this important issue. A few years ago I translated (from Russian) a short story — highlighting the vital importance of farming in the correctional process — as part of Vladimir Megré’s “Ringing Cedars Series”. I think you’ll find it sheds a lot of light on this whole question. You can find it on the Google Books site at — click on the chapter title “A security zone of the future”.

    • Susan Bain

      Wow! What a fascinating story. And what a perfect time to read it.

    • Ottawa, Wednesday 9/6/10 00h20 – Unfortunately (from the reader’s point of view, but needed to protect authors’ and publishers’ rights) some of the pages on the Google book site are missing, as is usual with Google books. But you can see enough of the story to give you a good idea of the story.

  7. Carolyn MacIntyre

    I am sorry that I missed this rally. I had not heard that it was taking place. We all need to stand up and let our voices be heard. I was under the impression that the elected officials of this country were working for the citizens. That certainly doesn’t appear to be the case. I have never seen so many petitions in circulation surrounding the actions being taken by the politicians of both the provincial and federal governments. The problem is they don’t appear to notice or pay any attention if they do. The prison population are as deserving of a second chance as anyone on this earth. If getting out and working in the fields brings some comfort and peace to any prisoner, why not? Is this rehabilitation or just more punishment? Is this for the well being of these prisoners? Anyone who feels totally useless on this planet doesn’t care about much. These prisoners are working to sustain themselves and I think it is a true crime for this to be taken from them. I live in a rural area and it has been frightening for me to see all of the old barns being torn down. They aren’t being used anymore. The word is the people cannot afford to farm . The advertisements to buy local are encouraging, but there are very few farmers to buy from. This really is a backward way of doing things. What happens when there is NO food. Of course this may not be viable in the eyes of our federal government but neither is a man made lake. I think anyone would agree.

  8. Pingback: Margaret Atwood on Prison Farm Closures « Just Blog

    • My heart is with you but Ms Atwood just does not have the credentials nor facts, which are always helpful, to weigh in on this topic as she has. I was a farm boy for 20yrs and learned the futilety of the family farm at an early age; but it is not a viable business. It was crushed out of existence by increased regulation imposed by the Ontario Government in the 1970s(+sending the milk quotas to Quebec) Do you think it can be resurrected as ‘sustainable mixed farming’ 30yrs later? My God what appalling ignorance. Working with animals and the earth does indeed imbibe the inmate with some of the finer quailities that humans possess but this is not realistic vocational training.

      • Caroline Yull

        Mr. Moorhead, your concerns relate to a different situation. I am sorry that you and your family have suffered a farm failure, brought on by conditions beyond your control. But you are wrong about the prison farms. They may not be profitable in terms of money, but they provide a fantastic opportunity for incarcerated people to mend themselves, to learn to get in tune with the land and the weather and with animals, and with the other members of their team — all essential tools for making things work in the outside world. They make people learn how to get up early, show up ready, put their work at full-tilt boogie all day, provide proper care and,yes, love to their animal charges, to work on a team successfully and to learn many many skills that absolutely ARE useful when they are released — operation (and maintenance) of heavy trucks and machines, scheduling, just plain working hard all day, any number of other work skills that are not necessarily going to be directly used in a new job on release, but that prepare the person on How To Be A Working Person. THAT is an enormous skill, and one that is not as readily learned in any of the other work opportunities in prisons. Plus, for about 28 cents a 2-litre carton, they produce milk for their colleagues in the prisons, and eggs, and poulltry, beef, poork, and field crops too. That contribution offsets some of the $4 million a year spent on the farms, and it isn’t even acknowledged by this government. These farms have been around for over a hundred years in some cases, and have given many men enormous opportunities to grow and learn, and become motivated. They are, by and large, NOT the ones who return to prison after release, except perhaps to speak as guests at meetings of other inmants looking at wherte they need to go and how they need to plan for their own lives on the outside.

  9. Ann Marie Rousseau (Kingston Ontario)

    Why is it that something so simple and obvious can has become so unimaginably complicated. All the level headed, deep thinking folks seem to understand that this is a herculean error on the part of the Harper administration. I say administration because this is popular American terminology, and seems fitting for our frozen-faced, thick-minded excuse for a so-called government leader. Who is he trying to please, his voters, the Americans, his pollsters? If he is interested in future votes then he better wake up to the reality of the evolution of our culture, a culture that demands that we respect our population, prisoners or not, that we care about our local food economy and that change is not always productive or financially sound. For God’s sake PM Harper: Give your head a shake!

  10. leave things the way they are we all deserve to help out in this world and if it is by the prissoners let them have the right to work so they don’t have to worry about the mental condition of always being inside if the can get out for some fresh air why not?

  11. Skot Caldwell


    Thank you for your contribution to this issue. If it hasn’t already been done, would you consider sending this speech off to the Globe, the Star and the National Post (I think more of Harper’s supporters might read the latter). As far as I can tell, this issue has had far too little national exposure, and your name and voice might just get some.

    • Sheryl

      Skot, I agree…if Margaret could use her name to further empathy for this issue, it may go a long way in the hearts and minds of Canadians who have never thought about these particular types of issues (prisoner rights, local food and sustainability, but who know and love Margaret Atwood.

  12. Diane Gregoire

    This is my request to keep and save prison farms, not only the farm products needed and appreciated but farming in general teaches prisons a trade.

    One must also remember in this electronic era that prisoners often commit crimes fueled by their addiction. These prisoners were often raised by violent non-loving parents who couldn’t nurture or love their own children or teach them appropriate skills let alone a trade.

    This electronic has turned us into machines but we are not machines. We are human beings who do not know how to function in society. So, those prisoners who have committed crimes due to their addiction and most crimes are caused by people with addictions need help in learning a trade or lifeskills that will help them reintegrate into society.

    We need farmers to keep the food growing, there are not enough farmers out there today to maintain the population food requirements. So let’s maintain the prison farms, to teach prisoners valid, useful skills that will not only provide them with a job when they get out of prison but also give them a sense of value and purpose as they watch their crops grow. Something they may not have ever experienced as children, as maturing adults, as addicts. Give them a chance by keeping the prison farms.

  13. Sheryl

    I am truly heartened to see the comments written here in support of second chances and forgiveness. Any of us are capable of making mistakes. This governments “tough on crime” legislation combined with cutbacks to community services will fill already over-crowded jails. And the CONS. govt know its true, this is why they increased prison spending when nearly every other sector saw cutbacks!!! do we really want too continue following the example of a failed system in the US where 1 in 100 adults are incarcerated? these “criminals” are our brothers, mothers, friends and children, i personally dont want to see any more of my fellow, non-violent Canadians locked up, there are far better ways for people to pay a debt to society…thank you all for speaking out

  14. “When lightning strikes, the mouse is sometimes burned with the farm.” (Phyllis Bottome)

  15. You are doing good work. As always.

  16. Mark Connelly

    How do I get on email or phone list to be notified when Cows are being removed from Frontenac Institution?

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  19. Pingback: Margaret Atwood thinks we should “Save Our Prison Farms” « The Bovine

  20. I’m happy to know that the Canadian people are looking out for each other when their government clearly is not. I first heard about this issue via facebook ironically about the time I saw the book A Prisoner in the Garden.

    “There was a garden on Robben Island and Mandela did indeed work in it -a garden made and tended by the prisoners, one that expressed many of the values now firmly associated with Mandela and the comrades who shared his prison experience.”

    If gardening gave Nelson Mandela strength to keep fighting the good fight after 27 years behind bars, that alone should be enough for Canadian politicians to realize the therapeutic value of it.


  21. I woul just like to say that, ive been through the system for years back in the day,the only thing i knew was take tke take ,drugs everything,my point is while i was inside the corectoins i learnd to work and to work together it took a few years for me to get use toit but it works one day at a time kee up the good work and i have been out for over 35 years i guess i am doing great

  22. I would like to send pictures of a quilt I made intirely by using the quilt blocks mentioned in “Alias Grace”. It was a joy and took about a year to complete. Laura Fejfar

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