The National Restorative Justice Symposium

I wake up. It’s 4:30 AM. At first I notice the silence. It’s quiet now. Earlier in the night it was noisy. The jail cells were purposely constructed with rounded ceilings so that sound would travel. This lets the guards hear what goes on in the cells. I assume that is why I could hear everyone so well earlier in the night. I see the light shining through the bars of my cell door. I sit up on the side of the bed, put my feet on the floor, and reach out, nearly touching the sides of my cell with my fingertips.
I am in cell #404 in the Ottawa Jail Hostel. I flew up from Halifax last Sunday to attend the National Restorative Justice Symposium. I booked this cell weeks ago thinking that three nights in what was originally the Carleton County Gaol would help fuel my penal abolition work with Canadian Friends Service Committee – and I was right. I am now more convinced than ever that a criminal justice system based on punishment and incarceration, to quote Friend Ruth Morris, “is an expensive failure.”
The Canadian National Restorative Justice Symposium (NRJS) is a three day event that is held every year. It is part of International Restorative Justice Week, which is celebrated in over 40 countries during  the third week of November. It all started in 1975 in England, where prison chaplains launched a day to remember incarcerated people, the Prisoner’s Sunday. The idea was then spread in other countries and twenty years later became the Prisoner’s Week. In 1996 Canada expanded the prisoner’s week into the Restorative Justice Week: Community, Victims, and Prisoners (the subtitle was later dropped).
The NRJS was a sold out event this year with nearly 400 people attending from across the country. It was organized by Ottawa’s Collaborative Justice Program and the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, of which CFSC is a founding member. CFSC made a significant financial contribution as a sponsor and by assisting Quakers to attend.
The theme, “Global Innovation – Local (R)Evolution” was highlighted by keynote speakers from England and New Zealand.  Hayley MacKenzie explained how restorative justice (rj) was established as law in New Zealand’s justice system, with government legislation and funding. Christopher Straker focused on restorative communities in the United Kingdom where restorative practice is used in schools, social care, children’s services, and in organizations and cities.
Each person attending the symposium was able to choose to participate in four workshops and one training session. David, Kirsten, Michael, Sarah, and I were able to attend many different workshops which included such diverse topics as: Inuit Culture and RJ, Indigenous Sacred Circles, RJ in Brazil, Community RJ, Offender Restoration, Restorative Parenting, RCMP referrals to RJ Programs, the Future of RJ in Canada, Understanding Deep-Rooted Conflict, Restorative Practices in Child Protection, RJ Standards and Certification, and many more.
At the end of the three days, I felt a bit overwhelmed with the amount and diversity of information that was presented. But just as my experience at the Ottawa Jail Hostel cemented my belief that incarceration is not an ethical basis for justice, attending the NRJS reaffirmed my belief that there are viable alternatives. I agree with Michael when he said, “I personally left the symposium energized to help in making restorative justice more of a reality for the communities that need it, to listen to the stories of those touched by the justice system, and to share the promise of restorative justice with those who aren’t yet familiar with it.”
Dick Cotterill is a member of Halifax Meeting and joined CFSC in the summer of 2017.