In the summer of 2020, the catastrophic death of George Floyd created a sudden swell of public attention regarding calls to defund the police, the over-representation of Black and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, and systemic racism in Canada. CFSC discerned the need to respond, and began planning for a new project—The Only Way Forward.
We saw this as an unexpected opportunity to advance Friends’ long-standing goal of reducing the punitive mindset that pervades society, and increasing understanding and support for restorative justice practices. The project was intended to examine the impacts of the existing criminal justice system, possible alternatives, and next steps. It was offered to Quakers across Canada and to the community at large.
The Only Way Forward has involved four phases:
- Summer 2020—project planning and formation of an advisory group made up of persons with lived experience and/or expertise acquired through education, research, or working in related fields;
- September/October 2020—film screenings, Do the Work Calendar, and companion Facebook page;
- November/December 2020—film screenings and webinars presenting expert panelist;
- January/February 2021—feedback, follow up and “bringing it home.”
The project has been well received and our Facebook page remains active. New members are always welcome!
The Do the Work Calendar at the beginning of the project was designed to provide a variety of mixed-media resources (and perspectives) related to the impact of colonialism, systemic racism, the criminal justice system, and policing in Canada.
We included information about restorative practices and alternatives to incarceration. The calendar phase was a self-directed and reflective undertaking. Over 50 resources were posted during a 30-day period: films, videos, articles, essays, and lectures with potential for sharing feedback on Facebook. This was followed by the webinar series and film screenings in November and December.
We have now had four months of exploration, learning and perspective sharing. We have increased our awareness and understanding of the criminal justice system in Canada.
This was the topic of discussion at our Advisory Group meeting in October. Monica Walters-Field (an advisor to the project) asked us the important question, “How do we take our learnings and reflections and bring them home?” What are concrete steps that can be taken? What does “bringing it home” mean to each of us as individuals? Will participants in the series do anything differently in the future?
I’d like to share a story about something that happened to me several years ago. It falls into the realm of “bringing it home.” First, a little history: In 2005 I became a certified Trainer in Restorative Justice Practices. From 2005-07, I facilitated circles for youth residing in custody programs and taking part in community based extra-judicial sanctions. In 2006 I became a certified member of the provincial Critical Incident Response Team specific to youth justice. There was a segment at the end of that training that involved the concept of congruency. We were given a test to measure the consistency between our behaviour at work and at home.
Apparently, the more consistent a behaviour score between work and home, the healthier and more balanced the person. I was pleased that I scored well on the test. I found this concept of individual congruency reminiscent of discussions about organizational policy vs. practice, which, when there’s a disconnect is sometimes characterized as “do what I say, not what I do.”
“All my training and involvement in restorative justice circles didn’t help me.”
And then something happened. Something that cracked my healthy congruency score.
Late one summer night, I received a phone call. My son and his friend had been physically assaulted at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto. They were on their way home when a group of male youth began to follow them, yelling homophobic slurs and throwing garbage. Both were assaulted, but my son’s friend was so badly beaten that he required medical care.
The authorities had already been notified, statements were provided, and the police investigation began.
A few days after the assault, I was driving my son to work when his cell phone rang. It was the police. They said that they may have found the perpetrators of the crime. And they asked a question: “Would we be interested in a meeting with the perpetrators, interested in a chance to speak face-to-face and talk about the impact of the assault?” It was presented as one option for consideration.
My reaction surprised me. I did not want to meet with the boys who had hurt my son—not in a few weeks, not ever! All my training and previous involvement in restorative justice circles didn’t help me in this situation. Clearly, I had more work to do if I wanted to achieve “true congruency” in my life. It turned out that the police were mistaken. The young men who committed the assault were never apprehended.
Nevertheless, I learned from the incident, and it was a good lesson. When something moves from the theoretical to lived experience, it alters the personal landscape. It changes perspective. Bringing it home for me was not so simple.
We are about to move ahead with The Only Way Forward project, and to turn our attention to possible next steps. We will ask ourselves questions. What have we learned? How do we take this from the macro to the micro? How do we make this personal? Are we going to do anything differently? Can we bring what we have learned into our own community? How do we bring it home?
Nancy Russell is CFSC’s Criminal Justice Program Coordinator. Find out more about this work at https://quakerservice.ca/justice