Civil disobedience considered by prison farm protesters

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Is Stephen Harper ready to face more angry citizens so soon after his G20 fiasco in Toronto? Certainly, the venue will be different -- a smaller city -- and there will be no international spotlight, but it might be unpleasant just the same.

I'm talking about the large number of Kingstonians of all ages who have signed up to help stop the government from selling and removing the dairy herd, established a century ago, from the property of the Frontenac Institution prison farm. It's one of six prison farms slated for closure by the Harper government -- and a clear majority of citizens want it to stay.

No one wants more violence, but what can citizens do when the government doesn't consult, listen, or negotiate -- when it refuses to be even mildly transparent and accountable?

Since Stephen Harper and company first announced the closures more than a year ago, the local Save Our Prison Farms Campaign has appeared before a parliamentary committee to make its case; it has organized a wildly-successful fundraising concert, as well as several well-attended information meetings; it has sent out media releases and given many interviews; its followers have written and called relevant politicians, and the Kingston City Council has given its full backing.

With writer Margaret Atwood offering her witty and wise support, the campaign also put together what might have been the largest demonstration in the city's history -- certainly in recent years -- and marched to the regional headquarters of Correctional Services Canada (CSC). Non-violently, Atwood and others taped a notice on the CSC front door asking for the government to listen to the will of the majority -- as 1,000 Kingstonians cheered.

The campaign has also offered to put together a working group that would include local non-profit organizations, St. Lawrence College, Queen's University, and the University of Guelph to come up with innovative, green ways to make the farms more viable than they already are. (The Frontenac Institution now supplies milk to six other prisons in Ontario and Quebec, saving the government almost one million dollars annually.)

But that didn't matter. As one campaign leader put it, they were told recently by the CSC that there will be "no extra time or financial commitment to explore any alternatives."

Yes, all efforts so far have been in vain. The government has already begun the dismantling process from Alberta to New Brunswick. Once-productive farms, owned by the citizens of Canada, are being tossed into the bin of history. Land lies unplanted; greenhouses are empty; some animals gone.

Desperate, the Save Our Prison Farms Campaign took its case to court on July 15. It joined forces with the Frontenac Institution Inmate Committee to have the court rule on whether or not the government acted legally when it decided to close the prison farms without consulting the inmates.

There is a section in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act which specifies that the CSC must consult inmates when a major change in their conditions is proposed. Closing the farms' world-class rehabilitation programs will certainly do just that. Inmates who have been caring for animals and the land, learning skills, ranging from machine maintenance to shipping and receiving, will be back in their cells -- idle. No replacement programs have been introduced.

On July 16, the judge hearing the case put forward by the Inmate Committee and the Campaign decided it did not have sufficient merit to proceed. The legal route, too, turned out to be a dead end.

Where does the campaign go next? What do citizens do when the government is acting in bad faith, refusing to divulge the facts and figures that led to its decision, destroying institutions which have made Canada a humane, corrections leader in the world and which support the area's agricultural infrastructure?

In Kingston, the fallback position appears to be civil disobedience -- pure and simple. People are ready to put their bodies on the line to blockade any trucks attempting to remove the prize-winning Frontenac Institution dairy herd -- even in the dead of night.

In fact, citizens have signed up in the hundreds. There is a phone tree, so that people can be called to the scene of the government's crime of "cattle rustling" as quickly as possible. A round-the-clock Community on Watch Station (COWS), dismantled during the court action, will soon be re-established near the prison farm to sound the alarm, if necessary.

No one wants violence, confrontation, screaming, bloody noses, or worse. There is no Black Bloc in this university, civil-service city itching for a fight. But what do citizens in a democracy -- ruled by a stubborn, aggressive government voted in by 25 per cent of the voters -- do when something they value is being destroyed?

We will soon see.

Kathleen O'Hara is a journalist who has worked in television, radio, and print. Her book Lost and Found in London will be out this fall.

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