As the dignitaries took turns giving speeches, Joy the Jersey cow seemed reluctant to embrace her new role as prison service mascot and take a place on the dais.
She lingered in the background, staring at a neighbouring field of grass and cattle.
But Joy’s reticent appearance belied the jubilant occasion that brought MPs, correctional officials, farmers, criminal justice workers and former inmates to a defunct farm on Thursday: an announcement that two shuttered Correctional Service of Canada prison farms would reopen and repatriate a herd of cattle to the penitentiary grounds where they originated.
“The cows are coming home,” said Mark Holland, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, to hoots and cheers.
The announcement comes as relief to a diverse group of farmers and social justice advocates who’ve been fighting to re-establish the farms since the last one closed in 2010.
“The cows have been a symbol of our campaign for so many years,” said Jeff Peters, one of several area farmers who protested the prison farm closings by buying and tending to a herd of cattle from the Correctional Service’s operations, of which Joy is one. “The protesting is over and it wasn’t in vain. It’s quite satisfying.”
Eight years ago, the federal prison farm operations in Joyceville and elsewhere in the Kingston area were shut down amid a larger reorientation of the country’s criminal justice system under the Conservative government. Farms and fresh dairy for inmates were out, powdered milk and mandatory minimum sentences were in.
The decision proved unpopular in Kingston, sometimes called Canada’s prison capital for the number of correctional facilities in the area. In August, 2010, 300 protestors gathered to block trucks from taking the animals away from one of the farms, resulting in 14 arrests.
Mr. Peters, a beef farmer, was among those who spent the night in a jail cell.
“They kept the lights on all night and the bed was hard cement,” he says. “It seems worthwhile now. We had a lot of fun.”
The protesters kept up the pressure. They formed the Pen Farm Herd Co-op and raised enough money to buy 23 animals. Today, the Pen Farm Herd stands at 35 head.
Members of the pro-farm group would gather for a vigil every Monday to show support for the re-establishment of the farms. Hundreds of letters were written to government officials from the Prime Minister on down.
While the Conservative government paid the co-op no mind, opposition parties vowed to take action if elected to govern.
After the 2015 federal election, the new Liberal government held public consultations on prison farms that garnered nearly 6,000 responses. Earlier this year, the government committed $4.3-million over five years to the reopening of farm operations at Joyceville and Collins Bay Institution.
Co-op members celebrated when they first heard the news but felt cheated when they learned that the plan included a goat herd at Joyceville, but no cows.
“We were shocked,” said Dianne Dowling, a beef and dairy farmer and co-chair of CSC’s Farm Advisory Panel. “It was really disappointing to us.”
The government heeded that frustration and, just weeks ago, accepted a proposal to add dairy operations to the farm plan. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario has granted the operation enough quota to keep between 35 and 40 dairy cows.
Around 500 dairy goats will join the cows, with hopes of expanding to more than 1,000 goats in the coming years when a major infant formula facility opens in Kingston.
Joyceville is scheduled to open the operation to inmates next spring or summer, said Kelly Hartle, senior director of operations for CORCAN, the CSC training agency that will re-build and run the farms.
Ms. Hartle said the farms would give offenders valuable job skills – the inverse of the argument the Conservative government used when they axed the program and explained that farms didn’t prepare inmates for the modern work force.
“I was heart-broken when I heard they were closing the farms,” said Shaun Shannon, a 55-year-old former prisoner who worked on the farm at Frontenac Institution. “That’s where I learned responsibility, empathy and hard-work. When heard they were re-opening, I cried I was so elated.”
Mr. Holland couldn’t guarantee that the farms would survive cuts from future governments, but warned against any such move.
“I don’t know if anybody will be politically stupid enough to take this on again,” he quipped. “This is not a group you want to go up against.”