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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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July 15, 2009


Deconstructing Dinner


Labour Intensive Farming "No Longer Relevant" - Minister of Public Safety

How the planned closure of Canada's prison farm program is lending valuable insight into the food and agricultural policies of the Government of Canada


Jon Steinman


In February, startling news was leaked to Kingston, Ontario's daily newspaper, The Whig-Standard. Minister of Public Safety, Peter Van Loan, was cutting Canada's prison farm program located at six Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) institutions.


The program is part of CORCAN - the branch of CSC providing rehabilitative employment training to inmates.


The farms have been able to provide ample supplies of some staple foods to CSC's institutions, which lends the program to be a working model of how any type of institution can feed itself and operate more sustainably. The prison farms further provide valuable skills to inmates in an age where it's clear that the country needs more farms and more farmers.


The planned closures have resulted in a wave of opposition from groups like the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Union of Solicitor General Employees who have been warning Canadians of the lessons to be learned of the Government of Canada's position on agriculture and food.


Perhaps the most revealing lesson was the reason first given by the Minister to justify the closures - "relevancy of skills".


"We felt that that money could be more adequately redirected to programs where people would actually gain employable skills," said Minister Van Loan in early April, "as virtually nobody who went through those prison farms ended up with employable skills because they were based on a model of how agriculture was done 50 years ago, when it was labour intensive, and not capital intensive, as it is today."


Dianne Dowling of the NFU's Local 316 has been at the forefront of the efforts to encourage the decision to be reversed and further strengthen the role of the prison farm program. Two of the six farms are located near her dairy farm and she was shocked to hear the Government of Canada announce that labour intensive models of farming are "no longer relevant".


"Many people [in the Kingston area] are opening up market gardens, in other words, moving towards labour intensive models and less capital intensive ones," says Dowling. "Smaller is being seen to be better," she adds.


Regardless of what side of the fence you're on (favouring capital or labour intensive models), in an ideal world, our elected officials would strive to represent the interests of all Canadians, and not only one segment. Yet, the 'go-big-or-get-out' approach to farming seems to run deep within the current administration. The prison farm decision is but a potent reminder.


Take for example the June 8 meeting of Canada's Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food's Subcommittee on Food Safety. In the room was Brewster Kneen, representing the Canadian Health Coalition. Kneen announced that smaller farms and less globalized food systems provide greater food safety and represent the models most widely used around the world. Conservative MP Randy Hoback took exception to such a perspective. "When we talk about exports, that is not what feeds the majority of the world's people," said Kneen. "Yes it is," replied Hoback!


Stepping back further to April 30 in the House of Commons, Hoback also commented on the NFU's efforts to save the prison farm program. He rose to set up Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Gerry Ritz. What followed was a rather revealing statement of the Government of Canada's position on what a 'real farmer' is.


"Our farmers are facing real tough issues," said Hoback, "and yet Mr. Speaker, what is the NFU protesting today, yes, the rights of criminals and convicts. We saw them working with the U.S. protectionists earlier this year and now it's prisoners. Could the Minister of Agriculture tell this house what he thinks the priorities of farmers are?"


Ritz rose on cue. "This is an exciting new direction for the membership drive for the NFU, of course they do require a captive audience since they really don't represent any farmers." A wave of laughter was heard from his Conservative colleagues.


The message is clear. If you're not a capital and technology intensive export-oriented farm, you're not a real farmer!


With small farms scattered from coast to coast to coast, it's clear that the Government of Canada is in need of some substantial education on who's working the soil and growing food for Canadians. The fight to save Canada's prison farms appears to be a critical piece to help raise this awareness and perhaps begin developing this much-needed curriculum.


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