Justice spending spree is criminal

U.S. President Barack Obama made a prison visit the media highlight of his week long campaign to make the Justice system fairer. One of his key reasons for reform is the $80 billion that is being spent annually on incarceration. 

Here in Manitoba, Justice expenditures have been well documented. According to Manitoba’s Auditor General, since 2008 alone the provincial government has spent $182 million to increase prison capacity and will need to allocate another $600 million to meet projected demand. Add to this a $100 million annual increase in operating costs and it is safe to assume that, not including associated policing and court costs, a full five years of the revenue from the recent PST increase will be used up meeting this growing demand. The lack of preventative action on incarceration explains at least part of the Manitoba government’s current budget woes.  

Obama says the main culprit behind high incarceration rates is unemployment of young black and Latino American men who currently make up 60 percent of prisoners. Here in Manitoba, 78 percent of inmates are Aboriginal and 93 percent are men – a truly astonishing figure given only 8 percent of our population is Aboriginal and male.  We all continue to pay for the harsh legacy of residential schools.

So are Aboriginal ex-inmates employable in Manitoba?  I work at Winnipeg’s Social Enterprise Centre in the North End. The SEC houses many non-profit businesses that hire ex-gang members and others with employment barriers. Our collective waiting lists for employment is well over four years long.     

We call these chronic offenders the “million dollar men” because that’s easily the amount of taxpayer dollars we sink into each one of them.  They have long rap sheets; substance abuse issues; no high school; no driver’s licenses; no work experience; and worst of all, no hope. 

I have to admit, I originally thought these guys were write-offs. But boy was I wrong. For most of them, a job in a supportive environment arrests the crime dead in its tracks which suggests to me to fight crime and its costs, we should be focusing on jobs for this demographic. Social enterprises like BUILD have had tremendous success moving these surprisingly inspiring men and women into the work force. The problem is that due to outdated government strategies, the people looking for work come to us in droves but the training dollars and contracts come in dribbles.   

Governments around the world are turning to what is being called the Solutions Economy to solve entrenched social problems by creating big markets for problem solvers. The dream in Manitoba is that social enterprises can create thousands of jobs for people that have troubles accessing the labour market by doing energy and water retrofits on the most inefficient homes where low income people live. We can grow too to do most of Manitoba Housing’s trade-based work. There is lots of work to do and long line ups of people to do the work but precious little to connect them together. 

Neither the Federal government, nor the City of Winnipeg have any relationship with social enterprises in Manitoba. The provincial government dabbles but despite a lot of talk have made very little progress on social enterprise growth overall in their long tenure. This is not a surprise given outdated procurement rules, business support programs that exclude social enterprises, and no extensive landscape implemented to get social enterprises off the ground. 

Despite this arduous backdrop, a fraction of Manitoba’s low income housing has been retrofitted by ex-cons generating utility bill reductions of over $20 million. This work can be supersized in three simple steps. Firstly, by ensuring Manitoba Housing contracts go, at market rates, to social enterprises who hire people with criminal records. This can be supplemented by a solid training program to ensure the right demographic is being hired.  Secondly, by modernizing Manitoba Hydro’s 1960 mandate so that the corporation would be required to engage social enterprises in a meaningful way to lower utility bills where low income people live.  And lastly, by requiring Manitoba Justice to use a portion of the future savings generated by non-profits who keep people of high risk to re-offend on the straight and narrow through, for example, training and employment initiatives.      

Taxpayers would be the main beneficiary of this approach, not just through lower Justice spending but also through massive reductions in utility bills - given government pays the utility tab for social assistance recipients and tenants in public and non-profit housing. 

Social enterprises shouldn’t have to fight government and its agencies to help it solve problems – government instead should lay the framework to ensure problem solvers have it easy.  The solutions economy grows to fill the space it has been given and right now in Manitoba, there isn’t much space.   

While there have long been critics of the Justice system from the left of the spectrum, the right is getting on board too. American Republican giants Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich have endorsed prison reform in the name of taxpayer relief by advocating for cost-effective measures such as drug treatment, job training, promoting social enterprises and alternative sentencing – all measures that reduce re-offense rates which at the same time cuts crime.    

Imagine a world where we could exponentially increase the number of problem solvers and their collective impacts? We all know that the world must change in important ways, we must build freeways to get us where we need to go.

Governments have molded an economy that creates problems; surely we can mold an economy now that solves them.  

Chickens of the North

Chickens are nothing new in Garden Hill First Nation. A number of community members have chickens in their backyard which they use for meat and eggs throughout the year. A lot of this is thanks to the great work of our partners at Four Arrows Regional Health Authority. Chickens are remarkably tough, and even make it through the cold northern Manitoba winters with no problems. 

When Aki Energy partnered with Garden Hill First Nation, we wanted to scale up the number of chickens dramatically. From five chickens in a backyard to 1400 chickens and turkeys. From a household chore to a business and employment creator, was it possible that local chickens could feed a community affordably and create local employment? We thought so. 

Aki Energy's Executive Director Darcy Wood with a Garden Hill chick. 

Aki Energy's Executive Director Darcy Wood with a Garden Hill chick. 

Today, we have 1400 chickens and turkeys living at Garden Hill First Nation. They are a mix of meat birds and layers. Their meat and eggs will be sold at the Meechim Market, a local pop-up market run every two weeks in Garden Hill. The revenue from the sale of meat and eggs will support the next season at the farm --  we estimate that this project will be financially self sustaining and independently community run after 1-2 years in operation.

The chicks started their life in southern Manitoba, at a conventional hatchery. We ordered a mix of breeds to get a sense of what would do best in a northern climate. The young chicks were shipped by plane to Garden Hill in the spring, once we had prepared the brooder to house them. The day we shipped the chicks it was almost 30 degrees in Winnipeg and snowing in Garden Hill. We had to work hard to keep the vulnerable chicks hydrated and stable during the trip, but they made it in one piece. 

700 chicks on their way to Garden Hill First Nation. 

700 chicks on their way to Garden Hill First Nation. 

Bidding the chicks 'bon voyage' on their way up to Garden Hill. 

Bidding the chicks 'bon voyage' on their way up to Garden Hill. 

The chicks spent their first few weeks in the brooder, the climate controlled interior of the shipping container barn. With heat lamps, free access to chick feed and water, and protection from predators and the elements, the brooder took care of the chicks when they were most vulnerable. Check out this video of the first batch of chicks the night they arrived! 

The chicks lived in the brooder for a few weeks until they were old enough to move into the sheltered chicken run built into the greenhouse. The greenhouse run was warmer than the outdoors, and still protected from the elements, but it gave the young chickens access to sunlight and fresh air, and got them ready for life outdoors. 

Young chickens exploring the outdoor run. 

Young chickens exploring the outdoor run. 

Once they were older and strong enough, the chicks were moved into chicken tractors, movable outdoor chicken runs. The chicken tractors are a win-win for the farm - the chickens don't need as much expensive imported feed, since they are eating bugs and grasses outdoors, and their poop helps fertilize the soil for future plantings. 

 We call the chicken tractors 'fort knox.' They may not be the prettiest chicken tractors out there, but with plenty of weasels, eagles and rez dogs who would love an easy dinner, we needed to build a tough chicken tractor to keep our birds safe. These tractors are double walled and enforced with electric wire, and we haven't had a successful break-in yet! 

The first chicks are reaching full size, and we are getting ready to kill and process the first batch. That will be a big day for the project - proof that a small northern farm can raise and process large numbers of chickens to feed their own community. So far it's looking good. 

The Joy of Fish Guts

The soil at the Meechim farm site isn't great. It's a heavy clay soil, and there's not a lot of nutrients to grow healthy plants. Since our focus is to build a farm that is as locally sustainable as possible, we've turned to locally available products to improve the soil. 

That's right -- fish guts. Garden Hill First Nation has an active fishery and lots of beautiful fish. As they process fish right in the community, that also means they have lots of bi-catch and fish guts... just what we need to build the soil at the farm site. 

A catch of red suckers and parasite-ridden pickerel couldn't be sold - so they became soil.

A catch of red suckers and parasite-ridden pickerel couldn't be sold - so they became soil.

We've been adding rotting fish to the fields as we plant them, buried in the ground so they don't attract bears. When we planted our orchard site, each tree was planted with a fish or two to add nutrients to the soil. We plan to keep building the soil with chicken manure and local compost and woodchips - but the rotten fish are giving our fields just the head start they need. 

Our research partners at the University of Manitoba planted two experimental beds - one containing fish guts and one without. Can you guess which on is which? 

Big difference!

Big difference!

The difference is huge! While we may not love the smell, we're appreciating our partnership with the Wabung Fisher's Co-op in Garden Hill First Nation and the joys of fish guts on our farm. 

Building a Farm-in-a-Box

It's been a while, but we've been busy!

We've been working hard with the community of Garden Hill First Nation to launch Meechim Farm, a community-owned and-run operation that's raising chickens, turkeys, and growing a wide range of fruit and vegetables. The farm is creating jobs within the community, and serves as a place to gather and learn about growing and raising food. 

This is a big thing for the community. The only food option is a Northern Store, which is located across the lake from the community. This means people need to take a ferry -- which charges per person, each way -- to get groceries, which are overpriced and often unhealthy. Yes, pop is cheaper than milk. The farm is a step towards food sovereignty and a healthy community. 

The meechim farm team <3

The meechim farm team <3

Starting a farm is no small feat, even in the easiest of conditions. Garden Hill First Nation is a fly-in community in northern Manitoba. Trying to figure out a cost effective way to bring everything we needed to build a barn to protect young chickens, and store all the supplies we'd need for the farm to successfully operate were huge challenges. 

In the end, we designed a farm-in-a-box.

It was a simple concept: We would use shipping containers to transport our equipment up north on the winter roads, and then use those containers as the core structure of the farm buildings. 

The journey from shipping container to functioning farm started back when there was still snow on the ground, and summer seemed like something that would never happen. 

In February we packed two shipping containers full of farm equipment: a tractor, an electric buggy, chicken pluckers, irrigation supplies, and building materials. We trucked the shipping containers up to Garden Hill First Nation on the winter ice road, which is only open during the coldest months of winter. Aki Energy's intrepid partner and experienced farmer Robert Guilford and Lenny, a filmmaker from the University of Winnipeg made the trip up north, keeping the shipping containers company. 

Heading up north on the ice roads. 

Heading up north on the ice roads. 

Unloading the containers on the future farm site.

Unloading the containers on the future farm site.

The good thing about shipping containers is that they're weatherproof and secure. They sat out the winter at the future farm site, keeping all our equipment warm and dry until spring. When the farm team arrived to unpack the trailers, everything was waiting for us just as we left it.

Unpacking the shipping container.

Unpacking the shipping container.

Once we unpacked the containers and organized our equipment, we set to work building the farm building.

Installing the water system.

Installing the water system.

The first thing we installed was the gravity fed irrigation/water system. That big black tank on top of the container is filled with water from the nearby lake. The water is then gravity fed into an irrigation system for crops, and an automatic watering system for the chickens. Simple is always better!

Chicks in the brooder

Chicks in the brooder

Inside the shipping container, we built a chicken brooder. Little chicks are extremely vulnerable to cold and need to be protected. Thankfully, the shipping container was a great brooder, and provided a safe, temperature controlled environment. We added ventilation, an automatic watering system, and farm staff feed and check on the chicks three times daily.

The greenhouse in progress - built off the south side of the container.

The greenhouse in progress - built off the south side of the container.

Next, we built a dual use greenhouse/chicken run off the south side of the shipping container. Plants were started on raised planter beds, taking advantage of the warmer temperatures provided by the greenhouse. Under the beds we built a small chicken run, to give the young birds some access to air and sunlight before they were ready to move outside into the outdoor runs. 

The dual use chicken run and greenhouse in early spring.

The dual use chicken run and greenhouse in early spring.

On the north side of the building, there's an outdoor kitchen and chicken processing facility, which will be complete by the time we slaughter and process the first batch of birds in a few weeks. On the top of the trailer, we built the 'penthouse suite,' a small living quarters for overnight stays.  

Building the penthouse suite

Building the penthouse suite

At the end of the farm season, valuable equipment can be re-loaded into the shipping container at the centre of the farm building and stored safely until the next season.

At it's core, the building is safe from the elements, fire, theft, and animals. The farm-in-a-box has proven to be the innovation that has made the Meechim Farm possible. 

Best of all? The farm-in-a-box is modular and can be easily replicated on future projects! It's affordable, practical and effective. We believe that the farm-in-a-box is a model that can work in other northern First Nations facing similar healthy food challenges as Garden Hill First Nation. 

It's official! Aki Energy is in the food business

Aki Energy got some big news yesterday! 

For the last six months, we've been working with a great team at Garden Hill First Nation, Four Arrows Regional Health Authority and the University of Manitoba to dream big - creating a sustainable, affordable food system in Garden Hill First Nation that honours traditional foods and creates opportunities for local employment. 

Meechim Inc. was born. Meechim Inc will be a social enterprise owned and controlled by the community in Garden Hill. The Board of Meechim is composed entirely of Garden Hill First Nation community members, with new members elected annually at a community feast and annual general meeting, and Meechim Inc. will be managed and staffed by community members. Aki Energy is proud to be providing development support and project management in the first year.

The Meechim Inc. dream team!

The Meechim Inc. dream team!

'Meechim' means 'food' in Oji-Cree - a simple name that gets to the core of what this project will be about. Meechim Inc. will work with local producers to grow and raise good food in the community - expanding the gardening and small scale livestock raising that is already happening with great success in the community. There will be beans and squash, potatoes and Saskatoon berries. We will be raising chickens, and possibly turkeys and rabbits - starting small and building up. 

Clearing the land for the Meechim Farm. It may not look like much now, but come back next August and check us out!

Clearing the land for the Meechim Farm. It may not look like much now, but come back next August and check us out!

Meechim Inc. will also be hosting a monthly farmers market in Kistiganwacheeng Elementary school, that will offer a central place to sell harvested foods from the Meechim Farm, as well as fresh pickerel harvested in the community by the Garden Hill Fisher's Co-op, locally baked bannock and other foods, supplemented by affordable healthy foods shipped in from the South.

Councillor Morris Knott with his grandson, walking the site of the future Meechim Farm.

Councillor Morris Knott with his grandson, walking the site of the future Meechim Farm.

So, what's the big news? (Drumroll please...) Yesterday, Aki Energy found out that this project has received start-up funding from the Manitoba Northern Healthy Foods Initiative! All our thanks to them for believing in this project. We've been waiting for this news a long time, and it means that over the next year all of our planning will be put into action! 

We are wasting no time in getting started! In just a few weeks, we will be launching our first Farmers Market - just in time for Christmas! We'll be in the Kistiganwacheeng Elementary School gym, selling locally made bannock and granola as well as healthy and affordable foods shipped in from Winnipeg. This is just the beginning, but we are very excited to be getting started! 

This project is exciting, but it's not altogether new. The community at Garden Hill First Nation has been growing and harvesting food from this land for a very long time. Check out this gallery of some of the local foods already being harvested in Garden Hill First Nation.