Thursday, September 16, 2010

Passing the Torch and Igniting the Flame

"Action is the Antidote to Despair" - Joan Baez

A young offender appeared in a Kingston courtroom on Monday to answer to charges of public mischief. Unfazed by the entire process, she showed no remorse. While waiting to appear she sat on the floor and sketched, then brazenly stood in line for legal aid. An all too common story of an underage criminal, taking comfort in the fact that they would be given a "slap on the wrist" and not have to pay for their actions. In fact throughout her incarceration, she sang. The nerve.

And as her story was told in our local paper, they were not allowed to publish her name because of her age, so referred to her simply as "Jane Doe". I don't like that name because it is more often used to describe an unidentified female corpse. I'm going to call her, "our young heroine".

Because her crime of public mischief was standing against the injustice of the prison farm closures. "I love nature and shutting down the prison farms is bad for the community," the 14 year old said. "It's bad for the planet." She said she knew she risked arrest when she decided to join the blockade.

She was the youngest person among 24 people hauled away by police because they blocked a road into Frontenac Institution on Aug. 8 and 9, in a failed bid to stop cattle trucks from removing the prison farm's dairy herd from the property. "I thought we were just sitting on prison property ... " (1)

As she was entering the courtroom, she was presented with a gift, sent from a woman who knows a lot about advocacy and civil disobedience, Margaret Atwood. It was a signed copy of her critically acclaimed book The Handmaid's Tale: "Dear unknown arrested girl, congratulations on your courage. It could have been worse, read on" in reference to the oppressive society imagined in her book, in which women are subjugated and controlled.

Margaret Atwood had passed the torch that our young heroine had already picked up.

Another Torch Bearer

Olga Hudson was born in Manitoba. As a young girl she often marched in protest with her mother. Marched against unfair labour practices, and the abuse of veterans. And marched for women's rights. In fact Manitoba was the first province in Canada to grant women the right to vote.

Olga's mother had passed the torch of social conscience onto her daughter, and as a result she said that she has always been active in social causes. But in early August of this year she was arrested for the first time. Olga is 87 years old.

She wasn't frightened at the blockade, though police treated her roughly. She was hauled to a paddy wagon, shackled at the legs and handcuffed with plastic zip-tie style restraints. "They hurt because they were narrow strips of plastic," she said. She was put into a paddy wagon and into a steel compartment. "Every time they turned a corner, I was terrified I would knock myself out on the metal," she said.

At the police station, she said a senior officer was clearly upset with officers who felt it was necessary to shackle her. She spent more than four hours alone in a holding cell before she was released. (2)

But she had followed news reports about the save-the-prison-farms movement and knew that this was where she needed to be. Her family must be so proud, as she is passing the torch of justice on to them.

And Still More Torch Bearers

Nik Gravonic had worked as a federal parole officer for almost thirty years, and had seen firsthand the value of the prison farm program. So he joined the protests that aimed to prevent the removal of the farm animals.

Nik Gravonic said he passed out during the paddy wagon ride to the police station from fumes that entered his compartment. "I was getting the fumes from the motor," said Gravonic, 63, ... He was taken to the hospital and then was returned to the police holding cells.

Gravonic said it was an unsettling experience to be arrested. "Probably the most eerie sensation I've had in my life was when the officer put the handcuffs on me because he was in control and I wasn't in control anymore," he said. Gravonic said he was treated harshly. "(The officer) said if I didn't keep my mouth shut, I would be charged with resisting arrest and I would also be charged with assault," he recalled. "So (he asked) did I want three charges or one charge, so I kept my mouth shut." (2)

Don Misener is a retired United Church minister, who had served as a prison chaplain for 16 years. He too saw the value of the prison farms: "They're incredibly important in terms of helping inmates decompress from years of incarceration and develop the kind of compassion and self-discipline that's crucial for their being able to function effectively in society."

Misener had never been arrested before. "I just can't conscience just seeing it wiped away," he said. "I think it's time to stand up and do what we can for the sake of our society and our grandchildren." (2)

These two men have passed a torch of compassion and insight.

The Prison Farm Closures are a Human Rights Issue

Philosopher Richard McKay Rorty once said that human progress was "an increase in our ability to see more and more differences among people as morally irrelevant." That notion is fundamental when speaking of human rights. Because human rights have little to do with being politically correct and everything to do with treating humans as humans.

In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi describes being interviewed by Dr. Pannwitz, chief of the chemical department at Auschwitz.' Securing a place in the department was a matter of life or death: if Levi could convince Pannwitz that he was a competent chemist, he might be spared the gas chamber. As Levi stood on one side of the doctor's desk, in his concentration camp uniform, Dr. Pannwitz stared up at him.

Levi later remembered: "That look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third German [reich]."

Here was a scientist, trained in the traditions of European rational inquiry, turning a meeting between two human beings into an encounter between different species. (3)

I'm not trying to compare the prison farm closings to the Holocaust, but am only drawing a parallel to one human being looking at another human being as from a different "species". This thought process allowed slave owners to look on their human holdings as property, not men, women and children. And in many ways a penal system allows the same distinctions.

I read a comment the other day, and I wish I could find the source again. But it was from someone who I believe had worked as a guard at the Frontenac Institute. He spoke of the relationship between the "staff" and the "inmates" and how it had been broken down.

The guards did not wear uniforms and had the same dirt under their fingernails as their charges. They worked as equals getting an important job done. And as the inmates toiled daily alongside guards, they found common ground and their differences became "morally irrelevant".

The Harper government has stated that these inmates don't learn marketable skills. What can be more marketable or beneficial than that? Tasks can be taught, but what the prison farms gave them, can only be learned through dealing on a day to day basis, with people who pass on their values.

Ottawa has refused to release any reports or documents to substantiate the claim [that they are losing 4 million dollars annually]. Correctional Service Canada refused to release any documents in response to an Access to Information request filed last year by the Whig-Standard seeking the latest internal audits of the prison farms. (2)

Ghandi said that "civil disobedience is the assertion of a right which law should give but which it denies..." All the people I mentioned above understood that. And they were not alone. A great many people stood in protest against this tyrannical decision.

People from all walks of life: farmers, teachers, ministers, nuns, lawyers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children. Singers, authors, professors, you name it, they were there. And two people who led the charge, Dianne Dowling and Jeff Peters, are true heroes and true humanitarians. They are also both farmers, who took time out of their busy schedules to fight for Justice, and they have passed the torch of determination.

Stephen Harper often speaks of "ordinary people". "Ordinary people don't like the arts". "Ordinary people want more prisons" ....

But he would never understand the people involved in this movement, because they are not "ordinary".


And this song is for them.


1. Young protester not backing down, By Rob Tripp, Kingston Whig Standard, September 13,

2. Diversion possible, By Rob Tripp, Kington Whig Standard, September 15, 2010

3. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, By Michael Ignatieff, Princeton University Press, 2001, ISNB: 0-691-08893-4, Pg. 3


  1. My gentle grandfather was an instructor at the BC Penitentiary in New Westminster when I was a young child. I was so proud of him. He taught plastering and stucco to men who had no training before.
    They learned more than a trade from Grandpa, however. He invited (with a certain amount of discretion, I would imagine, because he had a family) some of his apprentices to come to his home afterward. Grandma would feed them and Grandpa would help them find jobs.
    My brother and I slept in cribs and beds made by men in the penitentiary woodworking shop.
    We grew up believing everyone deserved rehabilitation, and knowing Grandpa's job was helping people.
    Of course, we were very young in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and no one discussed recidivism statistics with us, so we just knew, from the evidence before us, that teaching was a good thing, and learning could change lives.
    Inevitably, my mind saw the closing of prison farms as government denial of the very principles upon which we were raised: be good to people, help them change, treat them well...

  2. Very well said Kay. My dad used to often sign inmates from Frontenac Institute out to attend AA meetings. They had meals with us and were treated like guests. We never had any problems.

    On the other hand, they had a student rent a room for awhile, and she stole my mother's car.

    Go figure.

  3. Emily perhaps you "heard" your source on CKWS TV ?

    In court on Monday I sat next to "our young heroine". When her name was called ,I had to give her a poke to get her attention to stand up.
    She is an exceptional young lady!

  4. You're right Norma. I remember now. She sounds like an exceptional young lady.

  5. Emily

    An eloquent repackaging of my stories, but I have one small complaint.

    In your opening line you refer to the 14-year-old girl arrested in the blockades as a "young offender." I did not use this term and would not in this context.

    She is not an "offender" until convicted. She is charged but has not yet been tried.


  6. Sorry for the confusion. My use of quotations on "young offender" was supposed to be equivalent to air quotes, not from your piece. I started out by building up the notion that she was typical of the Conservative's view of young people. They would think of her as a "young offender".