Restorative Justice is a different way of justice that brings the victim, offender and community together to resolve the harms of crime and understand its impact on our lives. This is the third article in a series that looks at the people involved with restorative justice programs in Winnipeg.
Jason Burnstick sits at a table in the meeting area at the back of Onashowewin Inc. under colourful handmade banners that remind clients of their goals. Burnstick is a community justice worker, working with youth and adult clients who have criminal charges against them and who are diverted from the traditional justice system.
Onashowewin is the Ojibway word for “the way we see justice” – a fitting name for the city’s aboriginal restorative justice agency that helps people who have criminal charges find a transformative and healing way to resolve their charges without going to court.
Each Tuesday, Crown attorneys refer new cases to the agency. A community justice worker meets with the client and “prescribes” a personalized program that they must complete. This means the client might attend workshops that deal with issues like anger management, have to complete a victim-offender mediation or pay restitution, or meet with a cultural advisor. If a client doesn’t successfully complete their program, their file is returned to the Crown and they continue in court.
Burnstick says that although a community justice worker’s job is hard, it’s also rewarding.
“When I hear about things that clients are doing really well – people who have gone on and have done great things, it’s nice,” Burnstick said. “Like Renae Monkman at Just TV.”
Burnstick is also the youth facilitator at the Just TV multimedia program at the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre, and met Monkman only after she successfully completed her program with Onashowewin three years ago. She kept returning to the agency because she enjoyed the cultural programs that Onashowewin offered, and they inspired her work at Just TV. Monkman is one of Onashowewin’s many successful youth clients. Onashowewin and Just TV often work in partnership.
“From time to time, we have clients who’ve completed their program, but they still come back. Over the years, we’ve had a few who kept coming – we had a client who came in and volunteered and supported our workshops,” said Cora Morgan, executive director of Onashowewin. “Then we have clients that have nowhere better to go and they have no one else in the world, so they come here.”
Many of the clients that Onashowewin serves have significant challenges in their lives, from living with FASD and growing up in care of Child and Family Services, to living in poverty and homelessness. Morgan says those factors often play a part in the crimes that their clients are charged with.
“When I started working here, I had the mainstream idea of who was filling up our justice system and what kind of charges they had. One of the first files I saw was a picture of this boy charged with robbery. I jumped to these conclusions that he held up a 7-11. He looked mean in his picture. He came into our office and he was just this little boy that was 12 years old and took someone’s cell phone.”
Often, their clients have been victimized themselves in some way – by poverty, by racism, or by abuse.
“We had a client who was so severely sexually abused… She was cognitively delayed and had the IQ of a five year old. She was taught that if anyone touches you to fight them off. She took a small carton of chocolate milk from (a chain store) and the staff touched her and she fought them off – she wound up with a shoplifting and an assault charge.”
A person can be charged with a crime when they turn 12 years old. The girl in the story was in her twenties, so she was an adult according to the law.
“When her mental capacity is that of a five-year-old, should she be treated the exact same way as a fully functioning adult who has a better understanding of the world?” Morgan said. “There’s all kinds of shades of grey that the justice system just doesn’t see – so if there wasn’t diversion and the opportunity to come here, then what would happen to those people? They can’t get themselves to court on their own, so they’ll rack up a bunch of breaches and then they’re in jail.”
Not all offenders have the opportunity to divert from the traditional justice system.
“There are 63 Crown attorneys that could be diverting to Onashowewin, but only the same eight to 10 actually do,” Morgan said. “In every other province, diversion is happening to a greater extent, and they’re getting direct diversion from the police rather than it going to the Crown. That’s not happening here.”
In Nova Scotia, the Department of Justice runs a comprehensive restorative justice program for youth. Youth between 12 and 17 years old can enter the Nova Scotia Restorative Justice Program in four different ways – by being referred by police, by the Crown, by a judge, or by correctional services or victim services staff. Amanda Nelund, a fourth-year criminology PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba, said Nova Scotia has the most innovative approach to restorative justice in Canada.
Morgan is concerned that Manitoba Justice is still under-using restorative justice programming, despite the fact that diversion is having positive effects. In 2012, approximately 80 per cent of Onashowewin’s clients had their charges stayed.
“A lot of times the diversion we get is because the Crown attorneys don’t have enough evidence to prosecute, and the whole intention of diversion is giving people the opportunity to have something transformative happen for that individual. We would like to see more of those things happening and valued.”
She believes that if society learns more about restorative justice, there can be a shift in thinking that restorative justice is “soft on crime” to it being smart on crime.
“One of the issues is that there has to be stronger education about restorative justice with mainstream society, because a lot of times people have the perception that it’s just a slap on the hand and people get away without having to do anything, or that it’s a free ride or a get-out-of- jail-free card,” Morgan said.
“At the end of the day, our clients are expected to do a significant amount of programming. If clients have an attitude problem, we’ll send them home and say, ‘come back with a better attitude and we’ll try it again’. We don’t give up on people – but we want them coming in a way where they get benefit out of what we have to offer.”
“We’re not trying to punish people – we’re trying to help them. It’s in the best interest of greater society if we help these people, and rather than reoffending, they’re pursuing something more positive. They’re going to be a safer individual in society.”
Onashowewin is holding their annual general meeting and winter open house at 101-720 Broadway on Friday, Nov. 29 from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Anyone can attend. Call (204) 336-3600 for more information.
Other articles in this series: