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“The Tsilhqot’in War of 1864 is one of the most important conflicts of the initial period of colonization in what is currently “British Columbia.” In many ways, it illustrates the colonizing process, complete with devastating disease, conflict over land and resources, and settler officials’ betrayal of Indigenous peoples.

The Tsilhqot’in War involved members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation resisting efforts by settlers to build a road that would cut through their traditional territory in the interior of the colony of British Columbia. The road was initiated by Alfred Waddington, a colonial official and businessman, who lobbied his government and business friends for a wagon road to be built from Bute Inlet to Fort Alexandria that would connect to the Cariboo Road and continue on to the goldfields at Barkerville. Without adequate consultation with the Tsilhqot’in, the settler government approved the road for construction.

The Tsilhqot’in, however, had been hit with a smallpox epidemic introduced by settlers in 1862, and a number of war chiefs took it upon themselves to prevent further unwanted incursions into their territory. When road construction began in the area near Bute Inlet, Tsilhqot’in warriors carried out a series of attacks in April and May 1864, killing 19 settlers.

Fearing a general uprising of Indigenous peoples across the colony, the government, led by Governor Frederick Seymour, immediately dispatched two armed expeditions to find and punish the Tsilhqot’in, but both failed. Resorting to deception, Gold Commissioner William Cox sent word to the Tsilhqot’in that he wished to meet to conduct peace talks, but when five Tsilhqot’in leaders—Klatsassin, Piell, Tellot, Tahpit, and Chessus—arrived, they were taken prisoner and sentenced to death by Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, popularly known in British Columbia history as the “Hanging Judge.” The warriors were executed on 26 October 1864. A sixth Tsilhqot’in leader—Ahan—was hanged in July 1865. During the show trial, Klatsassin declared that the Tsilhqot’in had waged war, “not murder.” Nevertheless, the Tsilhqot’in warriors were executed and written into British Columbia’s (colonial) history as merciless murderers.

150 years later, in October 2014, the government of British Columbia apologized for hanging the Tsilhqot’in chiefs. Premier Christy Clark stated, “We confirm without reservation that these six Tsilhqot’in chiefs are fully exonerated for any crime or wrongdoing.” In March 2018, the federal government of Canada similarly absolved the chiefs at a public event. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proclaimed, “We honour and recognize six Tsilhqot’in chiefs—men who were treated and tried as criminals in an era where both the colonial government and the legal process did not respect the inherent rights of the Tsilhqot’in people.”

While many saw the acts of the provincial and federal governments as meaningful steps towards “reconciliation,” it is clear that the state has ulterior motives. The governments issued their apologies as part of a strategy to try to win over Indigenous peoples in British Columbia and pacify their ongoing resistance to large-scale capitalist resource extraction. To protect the land and water for future generations, Indigenous Nations and allies are organizing unprecedented mobilizations against proposed pipeline projects through unceded Indigenous territories, most notably the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project, as well as coal, copper, and gold mines. In context, the 2014 and 2018 apologies, then, clarify what Klatsassin and others knew 150 years ago: the Tsilhqot’in were engaged in a struggle to defend their sovereignty and territory from external threats, a struggle that is still very much alive today.”

– Gord Hill & Sean Carleton, “The Tsilhqot’in War of 1864.” Activehistory.ca, May 2018.

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“On February 27, 2018, the federal Liberal government announced the gradual reopening of two prison farms in Kingston, Ontario, at the Joyceville and Collins Bay institutions. This announcement marked the successful culmination of a local grassroots campaign which began soon after the initial closure was announced in 2009, and aimed first to save, then later restore, the farms.  Dianne Dowling, a key figure in the campaign as a member of the Save Our Prison Farms (SOPF) committee, concluded that success came from the diversity of the cause’s supporters: “Some people liked the idea that inmates were contributing food to the prison system. Others saw it as good employment training, or as a rehabilitation program, particularly through working with animals.” Although many other issues – from public land use to food security – galvanized members of SOPF, the rehabilitative nature of farming has remained central to the local support for the prison farms.

Perhaps best summarized on the now-defunct Save Our Prison Farms website, this support suggested that “farming provides rehabilitation and therapy through working with and caring for plants and animals.” There is a long history to this view. In fact, claims that prison farming rehabilitates inmates have remained remarkably consistent over more than a century. The reopening of these prison farms provides a necessary opportunity to reflect on where these continuing claims come from, and why, if farming can rehabilitate criminals, it has not succeeded even when part of widespread official policy. More importantly, can prison farming be relevant today, when it is historically rooted in fears of the urban population, an assumption that farms are inherent repositories of moral virtue, and a reliance on coerced labour?

The conviction that farm labour could effectively produce reformed citizens from convicted criminals has, historically, been widespread. C.F. Neelands, Deputy Provincial Secretary for Prisons and Reformatories of Ontario, wrote in 1935 that

at the Industrial Farm, Burwash, a very large proportion [of inmates] enjoy the advantages of work in the open country on the farms and receive the healing influences of direct contact with the soil which is so conducive to restoring sane thought and a proper perspective toward one’s fellow beings.

Neelands served as Superintendent of the Burwash Industrial Farm, and later the chief administrator at the Guelph Reformatory – institutions that used inmates to clear colonized land, practice experimental agriculture, and provide profits for the province while claiming to “make men new”[i] through a closer connection to the land, industrial and vocational training, and less strict discipline.

Both Burwash and Guelph were representative of the “industrial farm” model that developed across Canada shortly before the First World War, as Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and British Columbia opened new prisons built on an explicitly agricultural model to replace older local jails. The ideal was to provide training that would prepare the inmate for farm work upon release, and to maintain the support of parsimonious governments by providing food and otherwise lowering the costs of incarceration. These dual objectives remained at the heart of the demand for prison farming for a century and a half, and re-emerged as arguments for prison farming by supporters of SOPF.

The industrial farms were given tremendous impetus by the great increases in the urban population of Canada between 1881 and 1921. The rapidly growing industrial cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provoked two conclusions in criminologists and penologists. The first, emerging from a broad “environmentalist” consensus about the origin of crimes, saw the moral and infrastructural “decay” and “neglect” in Canadian cities, concentrated in slum areas, as driving the inhabitants to delinquency through poverty, disease and vice. Such views persisted well beyond the “age of light, soap, and water,” as well. One of the most significant documents of Canadian criminology and penology, the 1938 Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada, identified the “demoralization of the present day…slackening of religious influences, the loosening of family ties, licentious pictures, publications and magazines” and the influences of “poverty, resulting in over-crowding, semi-starvation, and the absence of facilities for recreation at home” as root causes of crime.

The second conclusion was that the farm, and outdoor work more generally, could be a form of treatment, if not for the conditions of the city, then at least for the criminal symptoms they provoked. Like many other Canadian elites, the 1938 commissioners, committed to expanding prison farms, accepted the dominant “agriculturist” assumptions of the early 20th century that held that the family farm and rural life were the repository of Canadian virtues – religion, family, self-sufficiency, self-control, hard work – and the opposite of the degenerative stimulation of the “jungle” of Winnipeg and the slums of Toronto. Although few reformers seriously advocated widespread resettlement in rural areas, the selective removal of populations considered deviant – from enemy aliens to indigenous children to convicted criminals, especially young delinquents – was widely embraced, with the farm held capable of countering the ‘demoralizing’ effects of urban life.”

– Cameron Willis, “Can Prison Farms Be Saved?Activehistory.ca, March 28, 2018.

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