BY: SINEAD MULHERN
Today millions of Canadians will be donning the red and black poppy on the lapels of jackets across the country. The story of their making is a little different this year.
Traditionally, the millions of plastic red emblems were made by military veterans. That lasted up until the mid-1990s. Today, we have the efforts of federal inmates to thank. A large portion of the poppies were assembled by inmates in minimum and medium security prisons and healing lodges in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The Royal Canadian Legion has sold 19 million poppies this year. That’s a million more than last year. With this year marking the 100-year anniversary of WWl and with last month’s shootings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the Cenotaph in Ottawa, more Canadians are showing their patriotic side, and rightly so. Donations from poppies go towards financial assistance for veterans, medical equipment, research and long-term care facilities.
According to the CBC, 2.4 million of the poppies were assembled in penitentiaries. Volunteer groups and groups of adults with disabilities who work for not-for-profit organizations also contributed. Those in prison tasked with assembling the Remembrance Day poppies work under CORCAN, a Correctional Service Canada rehabilitation program that has people in prison manufacturing textiles and furniture.
Poppy production starts at a printing press at our nation’s capital. The press punches out the black and red cut-outs. The machine operates at top speed, cutting out 18,000 shapes per hour. They are supplied by a company called Trico Evolution which sends the pieces from Ottawa to the prisons where they have a partnership with CORCAN. Inmates then piece the red poppy and the black centre together using the straight pin. The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers reported that 69 federal inmates at 10 penitentiaries across the prairies were put on poppy assembly this year.
Inmates make a maximum of $6.90 per day – a wage that has been static for decades. A prisoner’s wages go towards phone calls home and family bills, as well as staples like hygiene items, shoes or education-related fees if they are enrolled in classes outside of prison-provided rehabilitation programs. Recently enough, Correctional Service Canada decided to charge inmates a portion to help pay for accommodation as well.
That max $6.90 per day would make poppy production extremely cheap. It’s not known how much The Royal Canadian Legion pays for the poppies, but The National Post reported that the legion in Manotick ordered 40,000 poppies paying 12 cents for each individual one. In a minute, a person could assemble about six poppies. It would take 53 inmates 225 days of full-time hours to complete the entire order.
“CORCAN’s work supports the social policy of the Government of Canada to safely reintegrate offenders into society in a way that promotes their success as Canadian citizens,” the company writes on its site.
And Correctional Service Canada takes on a similar stance.
“Gaining employment skills while incarcerated provides an offender with a marketable skillset upon release, increasing opportunities to support a safe re-integration into communities,” Correctional Services Canada spokesperson Sara Parkes said in an interview with the CBC.
Whether or not poppy assembly is a marketable skillset is debatable as of now; production of these symbols of our freedom is solely volunteer-based outside of prisons. And CORCAN has been under much scrutiny by prisoner rights advocates who argue that the rehabilitation program does little to boost an inmate’s chance of finding work once back in society.
As of now, production for next year’s batch will begin again in just a few weeks.