It is now abundantly clear that the Harper government was never committed to working for the best interests of farmers, small business owners, communities and much of rural and small town Canada, and worse, that this government disrespects us and see us as little more than a quaint relic of the past. Those are strong words I know, but how else do you explain the comments from this government around the closing of Canada’s prison farms? Despite almost 50 years of verifiable success of the program the Harper government, in its increasingly strident ideological way, is closing down these farms and planning to spend billions on new super-prisons. These farms have provided practical work experience, but even more importantly they have helped to instil a much missing work ethic in inmates that has made a vast difference in their lives.
We know, in part from Statistics Canada data, that many of the inmates in our prison system grew up in situations where it is unlikely they learned the value of work- work was something to be avoided and for ‘losers’. Many former inmates have come forward to talk about how the prison farm program turned their lives around. One such inmate is John Leeman who says he had never worked a real job when he went into jail but he learned skills while working on a prison farm that allowed him to find meaningful employment when he was released. "There's just tremendous opportunities working on a farm. Not everyone is going to come out a farmer, but the work ethic alone is definitely a step in the right direction." (http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/
A wide range of farm and civil society organizations have opposed the move. But instead of listening, the Harper government just charged ahead with the Minister in charge, Vic Toews, speaking on behalf of the Harper government, and let’s be blunt Conservative MPs in rural and small town ridings across Canada: “My responsibility as public safety minister is to ensure that individuals who are in our facilities receive training that is appropriate, receive skills that are appropriate to the environment they will be returning to. It's not a productive use of the convicts that are incarcerated for a period of time ... Our responsibility is to provide appropriate training and jobs skills so that they can be reintegrated in a wholesome fashion in society at large."
In other words, the Harper government has no faith in the future of farm families in Canada. None. It is all there in black and white. If this government believed in a future for farming, then training people to work directly in the industry or in the many secondary industries attached to food production would be “productive”, “appropriate” or even able to produce “job skills”. What this also shows is that rural and small town Conservative MPs from across Canada, in ridings like my own in Huron-Bruce, have been complete and utter failures and need to be replaced. These MPs promised us, when asking for our votes, that they would go and fight for small town and rural Canada. Instead they have given up on us for anything else but a vote factory. Why a single rural or small town Canadian would still vote for these people is beyond my ability to understand when the record is so clear.
According to the government the prison farms produce about $7.5 million in revenues against $11.6 million in expenses for a loss of some $4.1 million. Well government MPs, welcome to today’s farming reality. Instead of giving up and walking away you should be trying to fix the problems your policies have helped to create. That you won’t, and see training anyone to have agricultural skills as wasteful, is why rural and small town Canadians will need to step up and send you packing in the next election.
Until March of 2010 Grant Robertson was the senior elected official with the National Farmers Union-Ontario. As Ontario Coordinator Robertson was also a National Board Member of the NFU for 5 and half years. As Ontario Coordinator Grant guided the NFU in Ontario through a period of sustained growth and spent those years traveling across many parts of Canada speaking with and listening to farmers, eaters, politicians and business interests. Grant and his family farm near Paisley, Ontario. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org