Feds reopen Ontario prison farms, planting hope in Manitoba

The Liberal government has committed $4 million to reopen two federal prison farms — eight years after the program was scrapped by the former Conservative government — but Manitoba's Rockwood farm isn't one of them.

Manitoba's Rockwood farm could see new life If the experiment is successful

The prison farm program started in the 1880s, giving inmates the chance to learn skills by building structures, operating machinery and caring for animals. (ProjectSOIL)

The Liberal government has committed $4 million to reopen two federal prison farms — eight years after the program was scrapped by the former Conservative government — but Manitoba's Rockwood farm isn't among them.

The farms being reopened are both in Kingston, Ont.

John Hutton, executive director of the prison reform-minded John Howard Society of Manitoba, applauds the government for the move and calls it a good first step.

"We're going to view this as an opportunity … to have ongoing discussions with the government about what can be done at Rockwood," he said.

John Hutton of the John Howard Society hopes the federal government will expand the reopening of the prison farm program. (Kim Kaschor/ CBC)

The farm program started in the 1880s, giving inmates the chance to learn skills by building structures, operating machinery and caring for animals. At the same time, the program would help supply milk, cheese and eggs to federal prisons.

"It gave people an opportunity to develop their empathy skills [and] their sense of personal responsibility," said Hutton, whose organization helps reintegrate male offenders into society and advocates for prison reform.

About 300 inmates worked on the six farms across the country when they were shut down in 2010 by Vic Toews, a Manitoban and public safety minister in the Harper government.

"He made a comment at the time that one of the reasons for closing the farms was that skills related to working in agriculture weren't particularly useful or relevant anymore," Hutton said.

Hundreds of people campaigned to save the program to no avail. The Conservatives ended it, auctioning off all the equipment and animals.

Hutton is hoping for positive experiences at the Frontenac and Pittsburgh prisons — the two farms that will reopen later this year or in 2019 — so the government will look at reopening the others. 

The six prison farms that once existed were:

  • Pittsburgh Institution, Kingston, Ont.
  • Frontenac Institution, Kingston, Ont.
  • Westmorland Institution, Dorchester, N.B.
  • Rockwood Institution, Stony Mountain, Man.
  • Riverbend Institution, near Prince Albert, Sask.
  • Bowden Institution, Innisfail, Alta.

The Kingston farms will be run by CORCAN, a division of Correctional Services Canada, which will provide inmates with job skills by making products including standing desks, blankets and pillows and portable classrooms. 

The Manitoba farm was at Rockwood Institution, a minimum-security facility located in Stony Mountain, north of Winnipeg. It was primarily a dairy operation, Hutton says.

Protests were held around the country before the Conservative government shut down the prison farm system in 2010. (CBC)

"The inmates would have animals they were assigned to care for. They might be getting up in the middle of the night to help a cow when it was calving," he said. "It was creating a real sense of personal responsibility and, I think, esteem.

"Some of the folks that end up in the corrections systems have trouble dealing with their feelings and working with animals is a great way to develop that side of your personality and to be caring for something other than yourself."

Hutton plans to get in touch with his colleagues in the John Howard Society across Canada as well as officials in the public safety department to see what the next moves could be, in terms of getting the other farms opened.

He also wants to "activate" the organizations and people in Manitoba who are interested in the Rockwood farm and get those conversations going.