Building skills with CORCAN’s beekeeping program

In 2018, the CORCAN employment and employability program started a beekeeping initiative as part of the re-opening of the penitentiary farms at Collins Bay and Joyceville Institutions.

The program started with two hives, but grew to 20 hives (10 at each site) in 2019. Through their participation in this opportunity, offenders learn both technical and essential skills that help them obtain employment in the community once released.

One of the participants was Tom, who participated in the program in 2019 and now resides in the community. He took the program at Joyceville Institution and says it changed his life.

Tom and his girlfriend had been talking about beekeeping prior to his sentence, as they are both animal and nature lovers. They had been given a couple of hives and some bee equipment by friends who were closing down their apiary.

“But to be honest, we probably would have never gotten around to it. It was just something on the back burner,” Tom said.

While incarcerated at Joyceville Institution, he heard about the two-day beekeeping workshop and 10-week beekeeping program offered as part of the CORCAN Agriculture program. He immediately signed up.

“I took the workshop and was completely blown away with the material and information and how fascinating bees were,” he explained.”  “I got on the phone with my girlfriend and told her this is something she needed to look into, because this is something we could work on together. Something concrete. So she took the course from Algonquin College and I took it while I was inside, and we would compare notes at the end of the day.”

Tom explained that he enjoyed being able to work on something with his girlfriend for the first time in their relationship.

“That was something I could look forward to doing not only on my own, but with my partner.

“The course was fascinating, the teacher was amazing,” he said. “When I learned about bees and how intelligent they are, how they communicate, and just the way they work together as a super organism, it was inspiring.”

Each week, Tom met with instructors and facilitators in sessions that covered bee biology, farming practices, environmental factors related to bee health and general lessons on beekeeping.

“I got to work with the bees every Wednesday for a year. I got to work with them from the time the hives were installed. I helped put in new bees and I watched them grow. I worked with them all the way through to the fall and then helped with honey harvest.”

As each week passed, Tom grew to love working with the bees more and more.

“The course teaches us to predict what the bees will do. You learn to stay ahead of the bees. You need to be able to predict how many eggs are being hatched, determine if you have enough room for the new bees.You learn to be able to tell if the queen is going to swarm (leave the hive, which is not a good thing). You learn to consider things like location and weather and food supply for the bees.”

CORCAN Agriculture Instructor Kevin Hansen helped to implement the beekeeping program. He remembers Tom well.

“Tom was there for the entire cycle. He helped get the bees ready in the spring, doing the regular maintenance and checkups on them in the summer months, and then right into the harvest months,” said Kevin.

Kevin, who along with his wife have been beekeeping for about 15 years, remembers Tom’s enthusiasm toward the program the most.

“Tom was a great student, very eager. He never missed a day. He helped recruit people to the bee program. He was a good team worker. He was very calm around the bees and he worked well with them,” recalled Kevin.

Kevin attributes the success of the program to inmates like Tom who took such an interest to bee keeping.

“We would not have made this program possible if it was not for people like Tom and countless other inmates who made it happen,” said Kevin.

Following the program, offenders were given a certificate of completion from the instructor, and some participants also earned a vocational certification issued by Algonquin College.

The goal of the offender employment and employability program is to help offenders learn technical, transferable and essential skills to contribute to their ability to find and maintain a job after release.

However, perhaps more than the specific skills he gained from the program, Tom says working with bees has taught him a lot about life.

“I think the biggest thing I learned was patience.”

“There’s so much keeping bees can teach us about life – like no bee can survive on its own – it has to be part of the community, and each bee has its own role and its own job. Even though there may be 60,000 of them in a hive, no bee can survive alone. It needs to be part of the community.

“It teaches people about delayed gratification. Because if you want something, you have to treat them with respect, you have to be patient, you have to be mindful, you have to build a relationship – but, at the end, you are rewarded with honey!”

As with any good hobby, plenty of passionate, welcoming people make up the bee keeping community, something Tom says is so important for the offenders reintegrating back into society.

“There is a growing community of beekeepers - clubs, societies and associations all over - who are so welcoming when the inmates get back into the community.”

He also believes this is an important opportunity for others.

“If these guys can take the course and they can come out and they are beekeepers, it gives them real, absolute, concrete hope. It makes them look forward to leaving. They are not thinking when they get out they are going to be on scrapheaps. They think, ‘I’m going to be a bee keeper.’”

Since Tom was released, the beekeeping initiative at the two Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) sites in Ontario has grown to include 34 hives, and recently Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba started a third program with the assistance of CORCAN and knowledge gained in Ontario.

Tom’s Parole Officer, Dalila Boukhaloua, says she has noted a tremendous amount of progress throughout his nearly two years on release. Tom recently reached his sentence expiry.

Tom does not know what the future will bring, but he plans to continue pursuing his newfound love of beekeeping.

As Tom puts it, “CORCAN and CSC have given me the most constructive gift I could have asked for.”

CORCAN is a special operating agency within CSC that is responsible for the offender employment and employability program. For more information about CORCAN and the various interventions and services provided to offenders to contribute to their reintegration, follow the link below.

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