'They owe this': Farm work gives convicts and victims of violent crime a chance to heal

On a farm in Mission, B.C., the men working the land would normally never be seen anywhere near each other - except perhaps in a courtroom. They are victims of crime and offenders, farming together in the belief they can help each other heal.

On small farm in Mission, B.C., offenders and victims have something to offer each other

As a rule, in Canada we keep incarcerated offenders and victims of crime apart. But on a farm in Mission, B.C., they work together. The idea is that offenders and victims have something to offer one another.

Offenders work six-hour shifts at the 3.2-hectare farm — known as Emma's Acres. They come from two nearby minimum security prisons: Mission Institution and Kwikwexwelhp Healing Village for Indigenous men, 140 kilometres east of Vancouver. In the past year, 20 offenders have worked on the farm. 

Emma's Acres, a 3.2-hectare farm outside Mission, B.C., is maintained by inmates from two minimum security prisons nearby. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

John has been in prison for most of his adult life. 

"I get up at 5 o'clock every morning because I know I am coming out here. I ain't done that in 35 years," says John, an inmate at Mission Institution serving a life sentence. John says he doesn't want to draw unwanted attention to his victims, so he asked CBC not to use his last name.

Offenders work 6-hour shifts at the farm - known as Emma’s Acres. They come from two nearby minimum security prisons. Mission institution, and Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village for Aboriginal men, 140 kilometres east of Vancouver. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

'It's just something I can't undo.'

In March 1985, during a blizzard in Toronto, John, left, and two accomplices pretended their car had broken down. When a Good Samaritan stopped to help them, they robbed and killed the man. John pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life. 

"It's just something I can't undo," he says of his of crime. "Something I got to live with, the victim's family has got to live with. A mother lost her husband. A kid had to grow up without her father."

John, left, and Philip Vince, one of his two accomplices in a fatal robbery carried out in March 1985. (Toronto Star archives)

Prison cut John off from the outside world.

John continued to be violent in prison, and for 20 years, he was held in special handling units and had limited contact with the outside world.

"I watched a maple leaf blow in over the fence one day. One guy stabbed another guy over that leaf. Just so nice to have it, to feel it, to touch it. Two guys argued over the leaf, one guy got stabbed," John said. "He got stabbed pretty bad, too, over a leaf."

(Nick Purdon/CBC)

Ray King, whose son was murdered by Clifford Olson, is a regular on the farm. 

The promise of the farm is that it can help both convicts and victims of crime get to a better place. Ray King has been coming to the farm since 2013. In 1981, King's son, Ray Jr., 15, was murdered by serial killer Clifford Olson.

Ray King, holds up a photo of his son, Ray Jr. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

"I come here, and all there is here is life," he said. "All I have been dealing with since 1981 is death, and it's such a welcome change."

John and Ray have an unlikely friendship. 

John and King spend time together over lunch. The first time King went to the farm, the offenders thought he was one of them, he said.

(Nick Purdon/CBC)

"Helping them helps me," he said. "The biggest thing is my change in attitude towards these guys who have made a mistake, and they understand that and they are making up for it — or at least trying to."

'We are gonna keep going until we make this work.'

Every morning, as the sun rises in downtown Mission, Glen Flett waters the city's hanging baskets. Flett's up at 3:30 a.m. to get the work done before he heads to the farm. The farm was his idea. He and his wife, Sherry, began clearing the land in 2013, and it's been operating ever since. Flett pays for it with money he makes watering, selling produce and whatever grants he can get. Flett says it's hard to come up with the $100,000 a year he needs to keep the farm going. "We almost lost our home and stuff, but we are gonna keep going until we make this work."

Glen Flett waters hanging baskets in downtown Mission, B.C. The money he makes from watering helps him run Emma's Acres. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Glen Flett was an inmate himself. 

Flett and an accomplice murdered Ted Van Sluytman, 40, at a Hudson's Bay store after a robbery in Toronto on March 27, 1978. Flett was convicted of second-degree murder and served 20 years in prison. He's been out on parole since 2006.

(Nick Purdon/CBC)

Flett says meeting his victim's daughter changed his life.

In 2007, Flett met the daughter of the man he killed. He says that allowed him to fully understand what he did, and ever since, he's been trying to make up for it as best he can. "I am not living in my guilt; what I am living in is my best. This is my best," he says about the farm. "Sadly, it took that tragedy to bring me to where I am today."

(Nick Purdon/CBC)

Working the farm is a way of giving back. 

"I don't know if they deserve this; I think they owe this," says Flett about the offenders who come to the farm. "This is not about, 'Oh, gee, aren't you getting a break.' This is about giving someone else a break." 

(Nick Purdon/CBC)

"What happens when you lock people in jail forever is they start thinking they're victims. They're not the victims."

'This is home for me now.'

John's next chance for parole is June 2018. "This is home for me now, and I made up my mind, this is gonna be me for the rest of my life," he said. "My dreams are out here."

Watch the full documentary on Emma's Acres