Restorative Justice in
Abbotsford began in 2001

THE HISTORY OF RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

The first recognized case of Restorative Justice in Canada was documented in Elmira, Ontario, in 1974. After two young offenders vandalized 22 properties in a small Ontario town, the assigned probation officer, Mark Yantzi and a Mennonite prison support worker, Dave Worth, asked the judge for permission to arrange for the two offenders to meet with the victims of the vandalism in order to see if reparations could be made. News of the success of this new (yet centuries old) approach quickly spread.

Soon, Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs, using approaches based on concepts of responsibility, healing and reconciliation, were being created across Canada, in the United States and in Europe. These programs helped open the door to a more formal recognition of traditional approaches used in Aboriginal communities in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Soon innovative programs developed that were based on Aboriginal ways of dealing with harms between individuals and within the community, grounded in values of respect, responsibility, community and healing. The movement to design and recognize approaches to justice that focus on addressing the harm caused by crime has now become a world-wide phenomenon. [1]

Howard Zehr, leading writer in this field, also points out that the modern field of Restorative Justice did develop in the 1970’s from case experiments in several communities with a proportionately sizable Mennonite population. “Seeking to apply their faith as well as their peace perspective to the harsh world of criminal justice, Mennonites and other practitioners (in Ontario, Canada, and later in Indiana, U.S.A.) experimented with victim-offender encounters that led to programs in these communities and later became models for programs around the world. Restorative justice theory developed initially from these particular efforts." [2]

It is interesting to note three major streams which have nourished the development of Restorative Justice in Canada: aboriginal thought, Christian theology and values, and feminism.

Some Distinctives of Aboriginal Justice

  • Crime is understood as harm against the entire community, affecting everyone.
  • Elders are in a leadership role in the resolution process, and the whole community explores their role in the incident and in the needed resolution.
  • No one is disposable….so the offender needs to be cared for, and re-integrated back into the community, not driven out in shame. The needs of the victim are also crucial to the process.
  • Healing circles express and integrate native traditions and spirituality.
  • Healing circles allow all participants to speak about how the incident has affected them.
  • Healing circles empower the community to handle wrongdoing themselves, especially important since aboriginals are over-represented in Canadian prisons. 

The Influence of Christian Perspectives on Restorative Justice

The early experiments in Restorative Justice in Canada were initiated by individuals embracing a Christian world view. Accordingly, Christian values find their place in Restorative Justice. Some are: peace-making; reconciliation; forgiveness; care and support for one another within a context of community; personal responsibility and accountability to one another, especially regarding wrongdoing; and restoration of the wrongdoer who is remorseful and willing to change his/her ways. These values are not unique to a Christian world view, but the Restorative Justice movement has certainly been encouraged and fostered by individuals and groups who identify themselves with this religious perspective.

Two of the values that resonate especially well with traditional Christian thought are reconciliation and forgiveness. Restorative Justice, though not specifically religious in its premise, strives to bring reconciliation between the affected parties, working to provide healing and closure for all participants. Sometimes resolution is possible without reconciliation, but greater satisfaction is experienced when the affected parties can achieve reconciliation with one another. Similarly, some of the most spectacular results in Restorative Justice have been achieved when the victims have been provided with what they have needed to be able to find inner healing and forgiveness toward the offender.

Restorative Justice holds in balance these two needs:

  • To identify wrongdoing as such, and hold accountable those who have perpetrated the wrong
  • To allow for reparation of harm, restitution, and amends, and the healing of broken relationships through exploration of thoughts and feelings, so that forgiveness can take place.

Restorative Justice also harnesses the energies of the community to meet the needs of both victims and offenders, not stigmatizing either of them, but providing them the help they each need to move on in dignity. This resonates with concepts of fellowship and care within Christian community as expressed throughout the New Testament.

The Influence of Feminist Perspectives on Restorative Justice

The latter part of the twentieth century has witnessed a rise in the influence of women in the workplace, and in leadership roles throughout western society.

  • This empowerment of the “female voice” has catalysed changes in leadership styles in business from military style hierarchies, to team approaches with flatter, more fluid structures, and less emphasis on power over one another.
  • Attributes, such as nurture, care, and concern that were traditionally considered “female” are now widely accepted as “human.” Care for the environment, care for the handicapped, and care for victims have each grown exponentially in society during the last 40 years.
  • Values such as empathy, the legitimacy of emotion and feelings, the subjective vs the objective: all have been given greater attention in a culture that is empowering of women.

How do changes in the roles of women relate to Restorative Justice?

The societal changes regarding male and female roles and values within society have also provided fertile ground for change within our justice system. It is not surprising that Restorative Justice began to flourish in the latter part of the 20th century, given the changes relating to the empowerment of women, and the shifting of cultural attitudes and beliefs. The contrast between traditional and restorative justice reveals this shift.

Traditional justice is based on an absence of emotion, with no attention to feelings, and with an emphasis on facts and persuasive argument. The rights and feelings of victims are largely ignored.

Restorative Justice explores feelings, and the impact of crime on the people most directly affected.   Within a safe and guided setting, strong or painful emotions can be explored. This subjective, emotion-friendly process resonates well with the “female voice,” and indeed a high percentage of Restorative Justice practitioners are women.

Restorative Justice strives to balance power between the affected parties, empowering those who in the traditional system had little or no voice.

Traditional justice has professionals speaking on behalf of victims and offenders, using professional jargon, and argumentative and adversarial processes. Victims and offenders are kept far from one another. In Restorative Justice, the participants speak for themselves, in a setting that encourages the sharing of feelings and emotions and personal contact. Nurture and concern for all parties is expressed by those who facilitate the process. In contrast to legal processes that can frequently re-victimize the victim, the goal is a respectful, empathetic process that doesn’t further harm the participants.


[1] The opening two paragraphs are adapted from “Perspectives on Restorative Justice”, produced by the Conflict Resolution Network Canada,  based at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, N2L 3G6     (www.crnetwork.ca)

[2] Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002)