Budget, budget on the Hill….

Baskets of corn. Photo: Rebecca Siegel

On February 27, when the federal budget is tabled, Parliament Hill will be buzzing as journalists try to read through and capture for their outlets the reality of what the 2018-2019 budget does -- and does not -- contain.

Among all of the important directions that the federal government needs to act on, there are two important items that I hope the budget will contain. And, of course, they revolve around agriculture and food.

Reinstatement of the prison farm system across Canada

In 2008, the Harper federal government decided to abolish the prison farm system in Canada after what it called a “strategic review”. In now-famous statements, government representatives concluded that prisoners working on these farms were not learning any valuable skills, and so the program was not reaping results. Boy, did that make a lot of farmers angry!

One of those prisons farms, the Frontenac prison farm in Kingston, was more than 900 acres (364 hectares) in size, and the largest urban farm in Canada. It housed a dairy operation, egg production operation, fruit and vegetable production, and a prize-winning breed of heritage cattle.

Despite protests from many groups and individuals, all prison farms were closed between 2009 and 2011. No matter the research or results that were brought forward, nothing could sway the Harper government from closing these farms. It did not matter that prison farms were credited by researchers with providing rehabilitation benefits to inmates such as employability and training, time management and responsibility skills, animal therapy, productive labour and physical exercise, access to nature, team-building work, and training in farm management.

It also did not matter to the Harper government that prisons farms had been proven to reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of employability once inmates involved were released.

Prison farms are also credited with many impacts beyond the rehabilitation of inmates. These farms produced food for the correctional institutions, but also shone a light on the importance of agriculture and food and food security, more generally.

The Save Our Prison Farms movement is well-documented in this article and many others. As well, in 2014 a documentary entitled Til the Cows Come Home was released. And Project Soil has published an adaptation of a major research paper detailing the history and evolution of prison farms in Canada and the United States.

Despite close to a decade of struggle, The Save Our Prison Farms movement has not given up hope regarding the reinstatement of the prison farm system in Canada. When the Federal Liberal government was elected in the fall of 2015, the group had hoped that reinstatement of Collins Bay and Frontenac prison farms in the Kingston area would come quickly. It didn’t!

Then in May 2017, a federal advisory panel made up of citizen representatives and Correctional Service Canada (CSC) staff was struck by Public Safety Minister Minister Ralph Goodale to look into the issue and recommend a direction regarding the prisons farm system, and in particular the reopening of prison farms in the Kingston area.

The advisory panel met four times in 2017 and last fall Corrections staff submitted a report with recommendations. To date the report has not been made public. Since then, it has been a waiting game. No public statements have been made and the citizen panel members are among those waiting to hear what might be included in the report and in the federal budget.

A National Food Policy for Canada -- one that includes family farmers

There is no doubt that the federal Liberal government is going to have to come to the table soon, recommending a national food policy of one kind of another. The question is really whether it will have the courage to advance policies that encourage family farms, move toward sustainable and secure food production.

Here is an except from an excellent policy brief presented by the National Farmers Union to the House of Commons Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food during hearings last fall.

The food policy development process is broad and its impacts will be far-reaching. However, its goals are open to wide interpretation. Depending on how these goals are understood, a successful national food policy could be achieved through transforming Canadas farming, food processing and distribution systems to one that implements food sovereignty. It would:

  • focus on serving our domestic market as the top priority;
  • ensure farmers can earn fair livelihoods to stay on the land, pass their farms to the next
  • generation and contribute to the economic and social fabric of their communities;
  • support the next generation of food producers, whether from a farm or non-farm background;
  • shift towards climate friendly production methods using fewer fossil fuel-based inputs and
  • which builds soil carbon and on-farm biodiversity;
  • maintain appropriately-scaled processing capacity in place across the country to serve producers and consumers via local and regional markets;
  • ensure institutions such as the Canadian Grain Commission and the supply management system continue to operate in the interests of producers;
  • reinstate single desk selling agencies for wheat and hogs and allow for single desk marketing of other commodities;
  • create space for farmers and consumers to develop new institutions to protect the interests of farmers, workers and consumers; and
  • trade fairly with other countries by respecting the diversity of values expressed by their citizens and the right of their farmers to earn a livelihood by supplying food for their own populations.

“Such a transformation will require Canada to move away from the global free tradeagenda that has neither delivered prosperity to farmers nor a better standard of living for consumers, but has concentrated the power and wealth of multinational corporations and diminished the democratic space for elected governments to limit their growth and influence.

For the past several years, Food Secure Canada has also been pushing hard for a National Food Policy Council, which would hopefully help to implement many of the points included above. The organization has also been promoting its Five Big Ideas for a Better Food System. When the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food released its report in December, included were some important recommendations. Others were troubling. Food Secure Canada will be digging through budget papers on the February 27 to see what the volume yields.

Food Secure Canada notes in particular that Canada’s current agricultural model is ineffective in dealing with climate change and sustainability issues, but also totally inadequate when it comes to ensuring Canadians have quality, affordable foods, and that family farmers have the supports to ensure decent farm incomes and intergenerational transfer of farms. A National Food Policy Council would hopefully help steer the federal government toward dealing with these and other urgent issues related to food and farms, and allow for family farmers and food consumers to be heard!

So then -- reinstatement of the Prison Farm system and a progressive national food policy!

Wishful thinking? We’ll see!

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Rebecca Siegel

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